Many Nigerian judges have kicked against virtual court sitting in the wake of the lockdowns occasioned by COVID-19, claiming that the practice is not legal under the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
According to reports, High Court and the Appeals Court judges, are of the opinion that there are that constitutional barriers to break before Nigeria can adopt a system of hearing cases remotely, citing section 36 of the constitution, which provides that court proceedings, including the delivery of court decisions, shall be held in public.
Section 36 (3) and (4) of the Constitution provide that:
(3) The proceedings of a court or the proceedings of any tribunal relating to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) shall be held in public.
(4) Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a court or tribunal…
The Senate, had last Tuesday, considered a bill titled “1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2020 (SB. 418),” and sponsored by Senator Michael Opeyemi Bamidele to amend the constitution to make virtual court proceedings constitutional.
Meanwhile, some of the judges reasoned that the adoption of the digital platforms to hearing and determining cases was most likely to be set aside by the Supreme Court on the ground that such hearings did not meet the constitutional guidelines for determining cases.
Several cases, including those involving human rights violations, could not be filed as a result of the lockdowns, just as many lawyers are frustrated that the lockdowns have denied them the opportunity to resume the hearing of cases.
Earlier, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, had directed that cases that were time-bound and urgent be heard, as lawyers could not leave their houses because of lockdowns imposed by states.
Meanwhile, some senior lawyers under the aegis of Justice Reform Project had written to the CJN to consider adoption of remote court sitting to ensure that the justice system was not put to a complete stop.