The Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, John Tsoho, has given the nod for the court to conduct virtual trials using online video conferencing platforms – Skype, and Zoom. The decision represents new direction for the conservative institution, thanks to COVID-19.
- In addition to virtual proceedings, the Chief Judge’s directive, effective from Monday 18th of May, prescribed the use of emails and Whatsapp for the service of court processes such as hearing notice.
- Judges and counsels in the virtual proceedings are still expected to be robed as though they are in court.
- Restrictions have also been announced on the number of persons allowed within the physical premises of the court and a compulsory observation of social and physical distancing of not less than two meters.
Flashback: On Monday, the 4th of May, Nigeria held its first online court trial at the Ikeja High Court in Lagos. The case saw the conviction of Olalekan Hameed for the murder of Mrs. Jolasun Okunsanya, the mother of his employer, and he was sentenced to death.
Why it matters: The outbreak of COVID-19 and restrictions on congregations, including court sittings, in the country have delayed the trial of over 150,000 court cases. Some of these trials include that of 51,983 awaiting trial inmates who are essentially denied freedom in anticipation of verdict on crimes they are yet to be convicted for.
The adoption of technology will help the court conduct and complete some of these trials without jeopardizing safety guidelines.
Yes, but: Existing problems of poor internet connection and economic inequality that have contributed to a yawning digital divide could mean that this opportunity is not open to all across the country. Holding a trial on any of the video conferencing platforms would require internet access, durable signal strength, and large volumes of expensive data – all of which pose quite a challenge, even in urban cities.
- Some judges have challenged the legality of virtual trials. Per their opinion, remote hearing of cases directly contradicts Section 36 of the country’s constitution. The section provides that court proceedings, including the delivery of court decisions, must be held in public.
Chinenye Uwanaka of Firma Advisory, a legal practice, argues that the directives are a complement to the rules of the court, not an overriding document.
She said: Virtual trials meet the constitutional requirement of fair hearing as long as links to the online video conferencing platforms are made available to the public, including lawyers, parties, members of the press, and other interested persons. Also, issuing the links ahead of time constitutes e-hearing notice in addition to other means of notice that the courts adopt or use generally.
However, an alteration Bill to amend Section 36 and offer legal protection for virtual trials has been introduced in the Senate. Pending the assent of the Bill, the legal status of trials conducted remotely remains contentious.