Judiciary: Working Within Covid-19’s Choking Space – By Davidson Iriekpen
As an important arm of government that must continue to run all through the period of restrictions and lockdown as a result of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the National Judicial Council (NJC), last week, approved far-reaching guidelines that could enable the courts to function perfectly.
The guidelines, which were contained in the report submitted by the 10-man committee set up the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad, to come up with urgent practical strategic measures to ensure the courts continue to function despite the lockdown, recommended ways to move the courts forward in this difficult time.
Submitting the report to Justice Muhammad in Abuja, the head of sub-committee and Acting President Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Mensem, said the guidelines though do not replace or substitute for the respective rules of courts, they complement the rules and make specific provisions that would guide justice administration for as long as COVID-19 pandemic subsists and possibly beyond, advising that the guidelines should be applied by all courts in the country – federal and states judiciaries.
Justice Mensem enjoined all heads of court to take primary responsibility by ensuring the compliance of the judicial officers over whom they superintend by making sure that the intention of the NJC in justice administration despite the challenges and glitches occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic is achieved.
Receiving the report, Justice Muhammad, who doubles as the Chairman of the NJC, implored all heads of courts to be guided by the guidelines by adopting or formulating, rules, directives and guidelines, as appropriate to the legal and material circumstances of their courts, with a view to achieving the goal of safely delivering justice in these challenging times.
At its 91st meeting held virtually on April 22 and 23, the NJC set up a 10-man committee headed by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour to develop a practical guidelines and measures to enable safe court sittings during the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from Justices Rhodes-Vivour and Monsem, other members of the committee include the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice J. T. Tsoho; President of the National Industrial Court, Justice B. B. Kanyip; Chief Judge of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello; Justice Kashim Zannah and Justice O. A. Ojo.
Also, members of the committee included three private practising Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) – President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro, A. B. Mahmoud and D. D. Dodo.
The committee was to, among other terms of reference, initiate guidelines or template for court sitting despite the COVID-19 pandemic, explore possible areas of collaboration between the judiciary and the office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), stakeholders in the justice sector and decide on any other measures that the committee might deem fit in realising the set objectives.
The report, which has since been approved by the NJC and sighted by THISDAY, makes it mandatory for heads of courts to ensure that they continue to dispense justice despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are also directed to establish virtual or online court sittings especially, in matters that are not urgent or time-bound, provided such cases would not require the calling in of witnesses.
“Virtual court sittings otherwise referred to as remote court sittings or online court sittings, should be encouraged and be promoted by the courts and counsel. All judgments, ruling and directions may be delivered and handed down by the courts and through remote court sittings. Save for extremely urgent and time bound matters, contentious matters that require the calling of evidence in a physical courtroom setting should not be called up by the courts at this time,” the report said
It noted that it was the responsibility of Heads of Courts to determine the matters that fall within these set boundaries and should also publish the list thereof for the information of judicial officers, litigants, counsel and members of the public. The location for the online proceedings, according to the guidelines, could either be within the usual rooms of the court or inside the judges’ chambers and should have at all times, the judge or panel of justices, court officials and security personnel, while parties can also join remotely.