By Carrington Osarodion Omokaro
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Actions may seem extreme under normal circumstances but are however appropriate during adversity. The Corona Virus Pandemic popularly known as COVID-19(CO- Corona VI- Virus D- Disease) which is a disease which affects the respiratory system indeed shook the world in the early period of 2020. Though it was first reported by W.H.O (World Health Organization) on the 31st of December, 2019 in Wuhan, China. When such news broke out in Nigeria, the Lifestyle of her citizens changed. There were restrictions on a lot of things most especially movement and gatherings because the deadly disease could be transmitted when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. One could also become infected by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands. So, washing hands regularly with alcohol based hand sanitizers and maintaining social distance of at least two meters was clamored. Now it is apposite to note that during this period courts were shut down and this put a halt on the justice delivery system in the country as Judges were no longer sitting and lawyers no longer went to court. This however is simply because of what I had already mentioned. Though courts resumed sometime later but we must take cognizance of the fact that justice delivery at some point was on halt. This is because we weren’t prepared, neither did we envisage the occurrence of such. This piece seeks to highlight the measures put in place in our justice delivery system in preparedness to dealing with this new normal.
At this Juncture, permit me to define some essential terms
Lawyering – The work of a lawyer in giving legal advice or in suggesting an application of that law in advancing an issue of a client.
Justice – The administering of deserved punishment or reward.
The Covid-19 experience has made us to see the need as to why we should put in place measures in dealing with this new normal and also the need to anticipate any further encounter that would affect the justice delivery system in the negative.
You will agree with me that asides death, major injury or illness, job loss, the Covid 19 pandemic lockdown is indeed a devastating experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of the Nigerian Legal System with regard to the use of technology. If we fail to show preparedness and take proactive measures, then this will lead to a delay and possibly a denial of justice. As it is a popular notion that justice delayed is justice denied,there should never be a clog on the wheels of justice. In the words of Justice David Josiah Brewer of the U.S. Supreme court “One thing should always be borne in mind, whatever the shifting process of successive appeals may accomplish in ascertaining the exact truth, Justice delayed is often justice denied. The Early end of every litigation should be one of the great objects of all judicial proceedings”
In all what has been said, what impact has this had in our judicial system and what steps have been taken so as to meet up with modern times. Should we continue to carry on the way we always have or we should do things that can possibly advance the justice system? If we never do anything which has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere. The Law will stand whilst the rest of the world goes on; and that will be bad for both.
COMMENDABLE STEPS TAKEN SINCE COVID EVOLVED
Remote Hearings- A remote hearing is a hearing that takes place using technology so that no one needs to leave their homes. With this, all parties should be able to stay at home and the hearing will take place over the telephone or using an electronic communication platform. The First Virtual Hearing court session in Nigeria, Tagged ID/9006C/2019 was held in Ikeja High Court, Lagos preceded over by Justice Mojisola Dada, where one Mr. Olalekan Hameed was sentenced to death, for the murder of his employer 76-year-old, Mrs. Jolasun Okunsanya on December 1st, 2018. The Lagos legal system made use of popular American conference call software Zoom with a number of participants in attendance. The proceedings were validated by Lagos state Chief Judge, Justice Kazeem Alogba, in line with the remote model of justice, Which Lagos state adopted on May 4th, 2020. Despite such, its practicability is still been doubted. However, in recent times, the justice reform project organized a Mock Remote Hearing in collaboration with Edo State Judiciary. The proceeding was between RASPOTECH NIGERIA LIMITED v. HESPER NIGERIA LIMITED and was presided over by the Honorable Chief Judge of Edo State, Honourable Justice Esther Amenagawon Edigin, while Theodore Udochi Esq represented the Claimants, Osaro Andrew Eghobamien S.A.N represented the Defendants. Everything done in a normal court sitting was carried out there in court, Witnesses were crossed Examined. And at the end of the day, there were no short comings.
Webinars – An online seminar that turns a presentation into real-time conversation from anywhere in the world. Webinars were used for meetings, settling of disputes and conferences. Some lawyers interacted with their clients with it. It dispensed the need to travel out. Top law firms and multinational companies conducted.
In spite of the above, can we really say we are ready to deal with this new normal? Is the above step which I commended all we need to work on to be deemed prepared in the Nigerian Justice System? I do not think so. Let us look at some other issues that need to be handled to show some level of Preparedness.
SHORT-COMINGS IN THE NIGERIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM
Section 1(1) states “The Purpose of this Act is to ensure that the system of administration of Criminal Justice in Nigeria promotes efficient management of Criminal Justice institutions, Speedy dispensation of Justice, protection of the society from crime and protection of the rights and interest of the suspect, the defendant, and the Victim”. The wordings here seems to evidence the supposed change and preparedness but what we see in reality does not tally with the aforementioned wordings. How then do we think we can deal with the new normal and meet up with Modern occurrences?
In the words of Mr. Osaro Andrew Eghobamien S.A.N, “Why could we not adopt remote hearings for at least basic applications – given to the implications of a global pandemic that had become some worth stale, yet with little innovation to show on the part of our justice system, to make it more responsive to the needs of those whom it serves? And what about informing counsel when a case will not hold to spare the collective resources of the litigant, the counsel, the court and indeed the economy? Why could the brightest from the profession not be appointed to the bench, thereby importing legitimate scholarship into the court judgements? Why not get lawyers and non- lawyers to monitor the life style (for, say, three years) of those considered for elevation to the bench, to ensure they are of a fitting moral character? Why not get the registrar to sort out all processes before cases are called in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court? Why should a case be adjourned for 2 years simply on account that a process had not been served by the Registry? So deep was I in thought, that in no time I observed I was walking at the end of the bridge. I had completed a large stretch of the task before me”
Despite the innovativeness of the remote hearing, statistics on the ground still indicate a need for more aggressive efforts to enable an efficient justice system, not every jurisdiction has adopted this innovative approach. About two years ago, Punch Newspaper reported that there where 191,766 cases at the beginning of the 2018/2019 legal year that were yet to be concluded by a judge or legal counsel. I wonder the number it is now.
Majority of the judges of various courts in Nigeria despite the way the world is advancing, still have to write in long hands while trying to get impressions on the demeanor of the witnesses and fielding legal arguments and objections from Lawyers when presiding over cases. This ought not to be so. Inadequate Infrastructure such as ill-equipped physical facilities affect the speedy administration of justice. Court libraries are poorly equipped. This poor infrastructure records encourages corruption. The manner at which court records are stored is so unsatisfactory which makes it very difficult to acquire when in need/ makes them susceptible to damage. These modern facilities which are not provided can lead to relevant court documents been tampered with. The effect of the attack on the Lagos state judiciary during the END SARS protest is a typical example.
People will always commit crimes and as far as civil rights are concerned; people will always want to enforce their rights in court. Daily in Nigeria, thousands of cases are filed. But the number of judicial officers to adjudicate on them are too minimal. A judicial officer can have about 300 to handle. Thus, the work load becomes too much on them. They barely have a life of their own or time for themselves and family all in the quest to meet up with what their daily lives.
Also, what is the rational for pegging a retirement age on judicial officers? There is no point having a 65-year old high court judge to proceed on compulsory retirement when the adjudication skills are still very much intact. Lord denning MR did a lot of good works at 75. He even stated that some of his judgements of greatest value were given after 75.
Manipulation and Intimidation of Judicial Officers – It is indeed tough been a judicial officer especially in Nigeria. Adjudicating over a matter is indeed a serious issue because of what is at stake. When Judges assume jurisdiction in high profile cases, they face uncomfortable situations. A judge should be meant to deliver his judgement without fear or favor. I remember when Mary Odilli J.S.C delivered her judgement in the Bayelsa State Pre-Election Matter,protesters stormed her residence at Abuja. This was quite alarming and disturbing. We have seen several judges who complained of threats and this demonstrates the pervasive sense of unease engendered by the lack of adequate protection for judges. More often than not, the Judges are not comfortable mentioning names and this implies that the system lacks the ability to protect judicial officers. It is laughable that a judge barely has an escort or just one police man but politicians carry over 2hilux full of escorts. Who in the real sense really needs the back up and security? The Judiciary is said to be “The Last Hope of the Common Man”. Judges should be allowed to preside without fear or favor knowing fully well that the hope of the common man may be dashed forever if they fail to give a fair and just ruling.
I can go on and on to state the shortcomings but stating problems without a solution will be an exercise in futility which I tend not to embark on.
The importance of law and technology cannot be over-emphasized. The manner and system of presiding over cases should be reconsidered to do away with the analogue style and reflect the digital system for ease of administration of justice. There is need for stenographers in our courts. There should be a data base for Judicial records. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Statute Books and Rules of Court should be amended to reflect the use of technology to ease and facilitate dispensation of justice so as not to open the floodgates for Preliminary Objections on the validity of a remote hearing which some lawyers could challenge. There is also need for some Constitutional, Statutory and Judicial Amendments because some laws have become archaic and not an appropriate reflection of modern times. In the words of Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour “Some laws no longer make sense”. The independence of the judiciary should be not just be stated simpliciter but should actually be seen to be implemented, if not the judges will be open to imperious grips of politicians and elected officials. The judges should be given proper security aides as safety when handling such a delicate and sensitive job is very essential. Allow judges who are willing and capable of adjudicating to continue to do so. There are still very vibrant justices who still have a lot to offer despite been made to compulsorily retire. There is no need to retire them because of the in takes intended to be appointed to the bench. Not everyone is Hardworking enough to be on the Bench. Some are lackadaisical in practice but politics sometimes makes them achieve such exalted status which ought not to be so. “An ignorant Judge is calamity for the innocent”
As it stands, I would state that the level of preparedness is below average because there are so many changes that needs to be done to actually foster the dispensation of justice in the right step. However, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a step” we can only hope that the development no matter how minimal continues as “Changes in the Administration of Justice will not come as a Sprint but as a Marathon. What we do in pursuit of the administration of justice, and why we do it, must be subject to constant review and personal reflection for every stakeholder. The Justice reform project has its work cut out beautifully. Success in any task of reform requires discipline, Mastery and self-control from all those who bear the Primary responsibility of effecting the change. As the cliché goes, if you are not part of the solution, you might just be part of the problem.”
We all have a role to play in this goal for preparedness; and we need to be certain within ourselves that the role we are playing or intending to play will be for the benefit of the Nigerian Justice System.
Carrington may be reached on Omokarocarrington@yahoo.com and 07088432549, 08129427602 (Whatsapp)