Access to Justice (A2J), a justice sector watchdog, has declared that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Nigerian judiciary’s lack of vision.
“With Covid-19 and its associated effects, including the suspension of judicial proceedings, the Judiciary’s many faultlines are exposed,” the group, said in a statement signed by its convener, Mr. Joseph Otteh and project director, Mr. Deji Ajare
The group said: ‘The failure of successive generations of judicial leaderships to re-organize how justice delivery processes are ordered so as to make them more efficient, timely and effective by leveraging the tools offered by modern information technology for this purpose is all so clear now.
“The Judiciary itself, has, for a long period, bemoaned the increasing workload of the courts, and the stress it places on the justice system and Judges, but has not done much in the way of mitigation by the introduction of technologies that can help it cope with the pressure on its dockets and the use of its limited time and resources.
“Rather the Judiciary has adamantly carried on with labourious, inefficient manual processes that promote inefficiency, increase costs and create extreme inconveniences for both itself and those who depend on its services. In exceptional instances when courts have introduced some form of technology – such as electronic recording machines – this has either been short-lived or have practically returned no significant value since Judges still rely on the manual recording of court proceedings in those courts and hearings are not sped up. The failure of the Judiciary to turn to modern technology has considerably impaired the delivery of justice in Nigeria.”
According to A2J, while it is understandable that a pandemic-induced lockdown will have a notable effect on the delivery of justice, there is no reason why it should bring nearly the entire judicial system to a grinding halt.
“Technology could enable those courts to continue to attend to the thousands of cases in their dockets, not defer them to a later time. This is what has been done in many countries, including developing Countries, like India that embraced information technology in its court systems since the seventies.
“A number of other developing countries – Malaysia, Kenya, South Africa and Brazil – are doing the same. In fact, in 2019, South Africa began the use of software to create and implement digital courtrooms retrofitted with multi-media and video conferencing tools. Communication technologies are so widely and inexpensively available at this time that there is no meaningful excuse not to exploit their use to keep some courts and proceedings running even during a pandemic,” they said.
It therefore charged the judiciary not to return to business as normal or remain the same at the end of the lockdown. “The Judiciary’s “normal” has consistently been a very poor template, unable to meet the needs and yearnings of Nigerians for efficiency, accessibility, and integrity. The Nigerian Judiciary must transition to a modern justice delivery institution and shake off the lethargy, inertness and its reputation of being stuck in the mould and limitations of a by-gone era.
“The Judiciary must reflect on the lessons of this pandemic in a constructive way, and must not be caught napping like this again if another outbreak similar to this one, per chance, comes upon the world,’ it said.
A2J, therefore, called on the CJN and the National Judicial Council (NJC) to make immediate provisions and directions enabling the use of electronic tools for the trial of cases where possible, particularly appellate cases, and ensure the continuity of court business where possible in the coming weeks, especially for cases involving fundamental rights and the liberty of citizens, cases touching on issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic itself, and other time-sensitive cases.
The group further demanded: “the commencement, immediately after the period of the pandemic, a time-scaled programme of re-organizing the way States and Federal courts will henceforth conduct business while mandating Federal and State courts to develop sustainable policies and programmes for leveraging information technology systems – such as electronic filings, tracking, communication and notifications, certifications, case management, record keeping and video conferencing – in the way courts function going forward.
“Consider a substantial reduction of the annual vacation period of Courts for the 2019/2020 legal year. This is a fair way for the judiciary to show that it is invested in seeing that justice is timeously delivered to litigants.
“Access to Justice also calls on the Attorney General of the Federation, Federal and State governments, alongside National and State legislatures to support any reforms that the judiciary embarks upon in the use of technology for delivering justice by appropriating adequate funds for this purpose, and ensuring that those funds are put to effective and prudent use.”