Violence by hoodlums who hijacked October’s nationwide protests against brutality by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) complicated situations for the judiciary, as some court complexes were burnt or vandalised.
The protests were carried out by youths and tagged EndSARS. The hijack kept the entire nation almost at standstill for weeks as hoodlums engaged in arson, looting and other crimes.
In Lagos State, Nigeria’s oldest court complex, Igbosere High Court Complex, and the nearby Igbosere Magistrates’ Court Complex were burnt during the violence, compounding judiciary’s problems.
The Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, was also burnt by hoodlums.
Lagos State Government had to temporarily relocate the courts and approve rebuilding of the burnt complexes owned by it.
The Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, is at the moment sitting at the National Industrial Court Complex, Ikoyi.
At the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, court activities nationwide were halted on the orders of the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Mohammed Tanko, in an effort to reduce COVID-19 spread.
Thinking out of the box, the authorities of the nation’s judiciary put in place an electronic system for virtual proceedings to keep the wheel of justice moving.
The CJN and chief judges of states issued practice directions allowing virtual court sittings mostly on the consent of parties involved in the suits.
However, while some courts did peripheral activities with the virtual system, others could not do anything due to lack of capacity to adapt to the procedure.
Some lawyers have expressed different opinions on the situation, with some saying that Nigeria hardly prepares for the rainy day, while others say COVID-19challenges are a wakeup call for the country to adopt relevant technologies that will keep it afloat in times of emergencies.
A former Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Benin Branch, Mr Douglas Ogbankwa, is of the opinion that the judiciary must learn a lesson from the lockdown experience.
He urges that Nigeria should accept virtual proceedings as a new norm, since another lockdown may occur.
“As a second wave of coronavirus beckons, the judiciary may be in for another shutdown.
“It does appears that a major impediment that clogs the wheel of progress of the virtual court system is the paucity of funds for all tiers of the judiciary, owing to lack of financial autonomy.
“This brings to the fore the cardinal issue of financial independence of the judiciary which has been guaranteed by Section 121 (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) by the fourth alteration, which states thus:
“Every money standing to the credit of the judiciary shall be paid directly to heads of courts from the consolidated revenue funds,’’ he notes.
Ogbakwa argues that the cost implication of equipment required to fully carry out virtual court proceedings is huge.
“It will be foolhardy for us to think that it is achievable without financial autonomy of the judiciary,” he argues.
Ogbakwa urges that courts should ensure an effective virtual system.
A lawyer and activist, Mr Anthony Makolo, is convinced that COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the judiciary to embrace e-filing system.
He urges that e-filing system be introduced in all courts in Nigeria to reduce or eliminate physical contacts in the filing process.
“E-filing system will only be effective if we have a good case file management system which presupposes that all court documents should be online and accessible virtually,” he argues.
On the temporary relocation of courtrooms due to the arson, lawyers also express concerns, with some arguing that the relocation will cause untold hardship to lawyers and litigants.
A former Chairman of the Ikorodu Branch of the NBA, Mr Bayo Akinlade, regrets that the legal community has been in disarray due the burning and vandalism of court complexes.
He advises that the judiciary’s should prioritise rebuilding of the courts.
“The Lagos State Government is planning to relocate the commercial division to an exclusive residential area in Ikoyi.
“Anyone who knows that area very well will agree with me that accessing that part of Ikoyi will impact negatively on litigants and lawyers.
“I cannot say much for the residents of that neighbourhood who spent a lot just to reside in such an exotic location only to now be exposed to commercial activities that will follow the courts.
“The Lagos State Government should reconsider locating the court within Ikoyi to between Surulere and Lagos Island.
“I am sure that the government can find other more suitable locations,” he says.
According to Akinlade, access to justice is as important as getting justice.
“If people cannot freely and easily access the courts, then we may have failed to do justice.’’