As part of measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, the Nigerian government has said court proceedings will now be held through teleconference, using digital tools.
The Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, said this on Monday.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Mohammed, had ordered the suspension of all court sittings except in matters that are urgent, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Mr Malami in a statement he signed on Monday said the new plans are aimed at ensuring that the judicial time lost to the COVID-19 lockdown is recovered.
He said judges “will be sitting and maintaining social distance while lawyers would be interfacing with the courts through their digital devices.”
According to Mr Malami, “Robust use of technological tools to conduct proceedings including virtual proceedings, this would also enable the justices/judges to preside over matters in their chamber without being physically present in a formal courtroom, parties and their counsel will only connect through teleconference means.
“The way to go in effect is that court proceedings should also be handled in a manner that reduces the number of persons in the courts at any given time.
“Although this requires the movement of suspects from prisons to the courts, all such suspects should be tested, in fact, everyone entering the court premises should be tested to ensure that they are not already positive, thus risking the lives of other people.”
Some of the changes sought by the minister would need to be backed up by the National Assembly and effected by the National Judicial Council (NJC), thus “empowering the institutions of the ACJA, 2015 to commence functioning immediately,” Mr Malami said.
“The net result will galvanise the judicial sector into a rapid mode to fast track trials and release of those who are deserving. Deployment of ICT facilities to fast-track taking evidence from witnesses. Digital platforms such as Skype and Zoom can be used.
“NTA stations across the country can be connected to courts to facilitate taking evidence as witnesses do not have to necessarily be physically present in court.
“Ensuring that court dockets have only a few cases per day can reduce the number of persons in courts. So, all the pending judgments should be drafted and concluded during a short period of time. This does not require lawyers to be present.
“Once the judgment is ready, the lawyers should be able to receive them in their email or it should be posted on the court’s website for any interested party to download it. This is the way to go and thus provide greater transparency.”
Mr Malami also proposed that persons awaiting trial on minor criminal charges would be discharged, especially in cases where adjournments have been at the instance of the prosecution.
“Criminal charges of minor and non-indictable offences should be summarily tried and sentenced to non-custody penalties. Even in cases where sentenced persons cannot pay their fines, the court should consider other alternative punishments other than a jail term. This can include parole or probationary sentences and, if possible, community service like cleaning public places etc.”
“Persons awaiting trial on minor criminal charges should be discharged, especially in cases where adjournments have been at the instance of the prosecution.”
He also said this year’s annual vacation could be suspended as the lockdown had provided judges “with many breaks from official duties.”
“Setting aside special dates and that courts work extra hours to decongest their case files. The 2020 court vacation could be suspended as the COVID 19 lockdown period has provided judges with the much-needed break from official duties,” he said.
“Having courts that are fully IT-compliant in order to fast track the digital recording and production of the record of court proceedings.
“Appointment of more judges and justices, as appropriate. Additional judicial decisions of federal courts are to be created. This will, as a proactive measure, help in decongesting the already loaded court hearing schedules.”