It is my pleasure on behalf of the CLEEN Foundation to welcome all partners, to the 6th National Working Group meeting on the project promoting transparency and accountability in the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria.
I wish to sincerely appreciate our state partners for staying true to their respective commitments on the project, despite the disruptions thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic. I commend the state-based project working groups at the state levels for their recent efforts in states in continuation of their mandate to advocate for the implementation of the law in the states. Since the inception of the project, CLEEN has convened 5 National working group meetings to discuss critical and burning issues hinged on the implementation of the ACJA, 2015, and to proffer realistic solutions. We are very appreciative of the consistent support from the MacArthur Foundation in funding this project.
This meeting is convened under a project centered on “Promoting Accountability and Transparency in the Administration of Criminal Justice System in Nigeria”. The project deploys technology as a tool to realize its goals by way of digitization of court proceedings/judgments on corruption-related cases to promote accountability and transparency within the judiciary. The project principally seeks to monitor cases of corruption and financial crimes in relation to the implementation of the provisions of the ACJA 2015 through a web-based platform (www.cleen.uwazi.io) Uwazi doc, which is functional, well resourced, accessible, and within the reach of the public.
The project thus far has witnessed the setting up of legal resource centers across eight states of the country to boost legal research on corruption and financial crime cases. Presently we have established seven (7) resource centers in F.C.T, Lagos, Anambra, Ondo, Ekiti, Oyo, and Enugu states with that of Kaduna to be launched soon. We envision that the resource centers will grow to become the hub of legal research for lawyers and other stakeholders within the criminal justice system and the general public.
It goes without saying, that when it comes to criminal justice reforms, CSOs and government agencies both share a mutual interest for effective justice delivery within our criminal justice sector and consequently must continue to synergize to realize the full implementation of the ACJA, 2015. The focus of this meeting is centred on gaining broader and useful insights on the ACJA, 2015, and effective strategies for its implementation, with a bais for promoting Anti-corruption efforts through alternative means of litigation adapting contemporary technology. I believe our exchanges and experience sharing in the course of the meeting will provide great insights on potential in-roads for our judiciary in exploring alternative means of litigation to promote speedy dispensation of criminal cases, especially corruption cases, and also identify gaps and practical solutions to breach the gaps. Extensive insights will be gained from the discussion on: “Effective Utilization of technology as an alternative means of Litigation during the Covid-19 pandemic, with focus on Anti-corruption successes, challenges, and the way forward”
Courts around the world are also adapting to find “remote” alternatives to traditional court hearings to ensure ongoing access to justice. China is at the frontlines of the use of technology in court services. It is encouraging digitization to streamline case-handling within its sprawling court system using cyberspace and technologies like blockchain and cloud computing. Millions of legal cases are now being decided by internet courts that do not require citizens to appear in court.
In Nigeria, in response to the pandemic, a Committee was set up by the National Judicial Council (NJC) headed by Hon. Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, JSC came up with guidelines and measures to enable safe Court sittings during this COVID-19 pandemic period. Section 2 of the guidelines make specific provisions as regards Virtual or Remote Court sittings;
2. Virtual court sittings (alternatively referred to as “remote court sittings” or “online court sittings”) should be encouraged and promoted by the courts and Counsel. The Courts should insist on such remote hearings for matters that do not require taking any evidence. All judgments, ruling and directions may be delivered and handed down by the courts in and through remote court sittings.
Interestingly, as it pertains the constitutionality of virtual court sittings, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria presently has before it a bill to amend the Constitution to make virtual court proceedings constitutional. In as much as one has argued that virtual court proceedings are constitutional in so far as it is not contrary to the provisions of Section 36(3) and (4), one would however welcome an amendment of those provisions in the constitution in order to remove all ambiguities relating to this novelty so that we can all move forward with certainty and of one accord.
Instructively, whilst waiting for the National Assembly to conclude work on the bill to amend the Constitution, two states of the Federation – Lagos State and Ekiti State filed separate actions invoking the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitutionality of virtual proceedings in the courts in the two states and all over Nigeria. On Tuesday the 14th day of July, 2020 the Supreme Court came out with its verdict affirming that conducting virtual proceedings in courts in Nigeria is not unconstitutional.
“Justice delayed is justice denied”. The greater and better use of technology in the administration of justice is an inevitable trend, and the current pandemic may have significantly pushed the digitalisation process much forward, leading to more e-mediation, e-arbitration, online courts and the use of Artificial Intelligence in the future. The Bench, the Bar & all critical stakeholders should be prepared for such evolution within our justice system and make best efforts to facilitate the just resolution of disputes as quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently as possible.
I wish us all fruitful and result-based deliberations, and may God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Benson Olugbuo, Ph.D.