Virtual Court Hearings As Panacea In An Era Of Uncertainties


By Abigael Joshua. News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

Justice Nayai Aganaba of the Bayelsa State High Court in Yenagoa never had an inkling earlier that fateful Thursday that something ominous was about to happen at his court.

If Aganaba had an intuition that hearings at his court would be violently disrupted by suspected hoodlums, maybe he would not have appeared at the premises on April 14, 2022.

However, he dutifully came to adjudicate in a case on the controversial ward, local government, and state congresses of the All Progressives Congress in the state.

Not long after the hearing commenced, the suspected hoodlums stormed the court room and disrupted it, by stoning Aganaba and chasing lawyers and others out of the court.

The judge was rescued and quickly taken out of the court by his police orderly, but many people were injured in the fracas that abruptly brought proceedings to a halt.

Two of the suspected hoodlums, Promise Ogilogi and Azibabin Adiki were later arrested while others escaped but the police promised to bring them to book whenever they are caught.

The police as well as the Yenagoa and Sagbama branches of Nigerian Bar Association strongly condemned the attack.

Nonetheless, such an unfortunate incident would not have happened if the court hearing was held virtually as this will protect judges, lawyers and other judicial officers from physical intimidation.

The concept of virtual court hearing seems to be gaining momentous traction and popularity in developed countries but yet to gain substantial ground in a developing country like Nigeria and many African countries.

Virtual hearing has to do with video conferencing of court proceedings with adjudicators, litigants and other participants or parties to a case linked by video and audio online, unlike physical hearing.

It is equivalent to holding zoom meetings online but the meeting this time is a court proceeding.

Virtual hearings have been found to be an efficient system as they
help in reducing unnecessary delays in court proceedings.

So long as individuals or parties to a case are ready to appear through video links, their cases will be heard and decided within reasonable time.

In the United States of America, while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, state court systems altered their operations to a large extent by holding virtual court proceedings.

It took many judiciary stakeholders in the country some time to adjust to virtual hearings especially at the height of the pandemic.

This was the case in the state of Arizona, when every court went virtual in March 2020.

Nobody, including successful family lawyer Gary Frank knew much about the revolutionary litigation process.

However, they began to adjust and embrace the idea as the benefits began to manifest.

What advantages does this type of court proceeding hold for the Nigerian judicial system and practitioners?

Cases of attempted or real escape of criminals and attacks by criminals on judicial practitioners inside court premises like the recent Bayelsa case mentioned earlier, have been recorded in the country.

Adoption of virtual hearings will definitely prevent such incidents as dangerous suspects could be interrogated online right at the correctional centres without coming to court.

Also, as earlier stated, the judges don’t have to be present physically at the court before trying cases.

The same thing applies to lawyers and other legal practitioners.

At the end of the day, everyone is safe and sound during proceedings no matter how long they last.

Virtual hearings also reduce cost and time for stakeholders, such as time wasted in traffic jams before getting to court premises, and money spent in fuelling road vehicles conveying suspects from prisons to the courts, among others.

Another benefit is that, either party to a case could request and have a copy of the hearing, download it and keep his own record for reference and playback.

The “mute” botton could be pressed during virtual hearings by the judge, to keep off distraction by parties who will not be controllable due to their unsolicited outbursts; a common occurence during physical hearings.

However, there are concerns in some quarters that virtual hearings compromise confidentiality of court discussions.

Privacy of data could be compromised during Zoom calls and meetings for instance, when one looks at the case of the American court where a third party, the service provider, is automatically sharing data and legal information.

The same situation happens elsewhere in other parts of the world including Nigeria.

Mr Solomon Akuma (SAN), an Abuja based legal practitioner also reaffirms that virtual court hearing is a system whereby one can settle his matter in court without being physically present.

Akuma said the system was introduced following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 especially during lockdown when people were not allowed to leave homes.

He said that the system also came up as a result of the social distancing protocols that needed to be observed as a result of the pandemic.

“In order not to stall proceedings, the heads of courts had to introduce the virtual court proceedings whereby you can stay in your office.

“Then, with the help of the Internet and website applications, you make your submissions while the court will be either in the court room or the chambers,” Akuma said.

According to him, the virtual court proceeding is a way to move cases forward without succumbing to the outcome of the pandemic.

Akuma said that virtual court proceedings had come to stay to curb the spread of the pandemic because of the new variants of COVID-19 that kept appearing.

Mr Musbau Lawal, a legal practitioner and notary public in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital defined virtual court hearing as a legal proceeding devoid of the physical presence of the parties in court.

Lawal said such hearings included proceedings conducted online whereby parties and the presiding judge were miles away from each other.

In his submission, another legal practitioner, Mr Samuel Okutepa (SAN) said that virtual court proceeding is a welcome development.

Okutepa said that however, the advanced technology that would facilitate its operations should be put in place and maintained in the country to ensure successful and unhindered operation.

He said that the challenges involved in virtual court proceedings should be addressed so as to accommodate the interests of the end users.

Okutepa said the end users include the market women, peasant farmers and petty traders in remote villages without electricity and basic infrastructure, among others.

Another legal practitioner, Mr Adamson Adeboro said that the whole world is now embracing the concept of virtual court proceedings and Nigeria must adopt same.

“One thing we will have to bear in mind is that the entire world is shifting from analogue to digital so Nigeria cannot be left behind in the committee of nations,” Adeboro said.

He said that it is a good development, for one to sit in the comfort of his room and file his court processes.

“A lot of advantages are involved; especially the advantages of speedy trials and access to justice,” Adeboro said.

According to him, nations and people of the world are in a peculiar state and everything must be treated peculiarly.

“I was in my office when one of my judgments was delivered so I was saved a lot of pain and stress. Virtual court proceeding is a welcome development,’’ Adeboro said.

Mr Sunday Egbaji, an Abuja based lawyer also recalled that virtual court proceedings became prominent as a result of COVID-19 pandemic that hit the world in 2020.

“However, apart from the advent of COVID-19, other parts of the world have introduced virtual court proceedings where cameras were deployed for coverage of court proceedings,” Egbaji added.

He urged the government to amend the constitution to support virtual court proceedings in Nigeria.

Generally speaking, many observers agree that virtual court hearings are convenient for legal practitioners especially judges and lawyers.

They also agree that the practice will continue and may be permanent in some places in the future due to the way technology is advancing daily.

Some have also advised that the Nigerian judicial establishment should fully join the train now by fully embracing virtual hearings, so as not to be left behind.

All things being equal, with time, virtual court hearings will render irrelevant the popular saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ as there will be no more cause for delay.

As the general elections draw nearer, apart from the COVID-19 ongoing era, Nigerians are entering another period of uncertainties with respect to judicial and political sectors.

Lives should be protected during adjudications and virtual court hearings is one way of ensuring this especially when some politicians take elections as a ‘do or die’ affair.