Benin-based lawyer, Douglas Ogbankwa writes that in the face of indequate funding of the judiciary, justice sector stakeholders must find creative ways to keep the system going, especially following the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Judiciary eggheads in Nigeria will need to be innovative to find a solution to the problem of delay in the court system caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) and chief judges of the states issued Practice Directions allowing virtual court sittings mostly with the consent of parties.
While some courts carried out minor activities using virtual systems, others did not.
We have not learnt our lessons in the justice delivery system in Nigeria and as the second wave of the Coronavirus is on, the judicial sector is suffering from delay owing to the restrictions of movements and filed processes.
It does appears that the major impediment that clogs the wheel of progress of the virtual court system, is paucity of funds for all tiers of the judiciary, owing to the lack of financial autonomy.
This brings to the fore the cardinal issue of judicial financial independence which has been guaranteed by Section 121 (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,1999 (As Amended) by the 4th alteration.
It states: “Every monies standing to the credit of the judiciary shall be paid directly to heads of courts from the consolidated revenue funds.”
As explicit and unambiguous as this section seems, some governors aided by very senior lawyers have been circumventing this express provisions of the constitution, which in saner climes is even an impeachable offence. The President is a co-conspirator in this action of suppressing the judiciary and by extension the people.
The gamut of equipment and infrastructure required to fully integrate virtual conferencing in our court system is huge considering the financial implications of same.
It will be foolhardy for us to think that it is achievable, without financial authonomy of the judiciary. Lawyers act as if everything is ok. Our judiciary is under siege by these mindless politicians. They now run the states as emperors as they determine almost every thing.
It takes an extraordinarily courageous Judge to give judgment against the impunity of government in view of financial control they have over the judiciary. Some governors even treat state chief judges as their appointees issuing orders to him or her.
It is, however, a chief judge that does not know his or her onions that will fall prey to such administrative malfeasance. Just as the governor is the head of executive, the chief judge is the head of the judiciary.
They derive their powers from the Constitution. They are co-heads of different arms of government. According to the constitution, none is subordinate to the other following the Principles of separation of powers clearly delimiting the powers of state in Sections 4,5 & 6 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic,1999 (As Amended,).
The analysis above becomes apposite because it has affected the inability of the chief judges of the states to deploy the required infrastructure to fully kickstart he much required virtual court sittings that will facilitate quick dispensation of justice in this Covid-19 period.
The courts should however be ingenuous in delivering Justice. It is completely unacceptable for a court that has prior knowledge that it will not sit not to send SMS or WhatssAp messages to lawyers, intimating them of this fact and allowing for a window for a three way conference call between counsel on both sides and the Court Registrar to take the next adjourned date.
To this end, judges should release funds to their registries from the sums standing to their credit monthly for the maintenance of courts. This will allow for better justice delivery. Those monies are to ensure the efficient running of the court system and they should be applied for such and nothing else .
As a beginning, matters for mention should be mentioned virtually and not physically and they should be mentioned expeditiously to allow for dates for hearing to be taken on time.
The Bar Associations and the Judicial Service Commissions should also collaborate to have joint training the trainers’ sessions so that the mastering of the virtual court system should trickle down to all judicial officers and lawyers.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has also given us an opportunity to embrace the e-filing system which the Corporate Affairs Commission has perfected. We should introduce this system in all courts in Nigeria to reduce or even eliminate physical contact in the filing process.
The e-filing system will only be effective if we had a good case file management system which presupposes that all court documents should be accessible virtually,on line ,real time.
As a precursor to the above indicated suggestion ,we recommend to all Court Registries in Nigeria the pioneering strides of the Court of Appeal ,Benin,Front Desk Unit where there is a Court of Appeal, Benin WhatsApp group made of leaders of the Bar within Jurisdiction and the court officials from where the cause lists of the court are weekly churned out on the platform. It is a 24 hour service .
There are even scenarios, when they indicate on the platform by midnight that the court would not sitting on that day. Other information about the court are also posted on the platform .I commend the the I.T. Compliant , Justice Helen Morenike Ogunmiwunju (JSC) for my lord’s resourcefulness in setting up the platform when she was the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal ,Benin Division. My Lord has now been elevated to the Supreme Court
We also thank the Deputy Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal Benin an amiable character ,the head of the Front Desk Unit of the court, Mrs.Tugai and her team in the Court of Appeal, Benin Front Desk Section for keeping the vision going .
We urge all courts in Nigeria to adopt this working template. When we see good developments let us commend and emulate same.
The Nigerian Judiciary should wake up from its colonial mentality and brace up to the challenges of the 21st Century of using technology to make justice delivery seamless. This is the way to go in order for the Judiciary not to become moot in the coming days of the second wave of COVID-19.We must get it right .
Justice delayed is Justice denied per William E. Gladstone.
Douglas Ogbankwa, a Benin based legal practitioner is the immediate past publicity secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association Benin Branch and convener of the Vanguard for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Transparent Bar Initiative.