BUSINESSES and other societal activities globally have continued to embrace a digitally-enabled ecosystem to stay afloat.
The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019 registered strongly the need to embrace technology in all facets of life.
This gave rise to virtual court hearing in Nigeria, which has evolved into a more sophisticated approach known hybrid hearing – a combination of physical court hearing and virtual/remote court sitting.
Virtual court hearing can be done via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype and Video Conferencing, among other apps.
At its 91st meeting in April 2020, the Nigerian Judicial Council had constituted a committee to revise guidelines for court sittings. The guidelines included virtual court hearing.
The guidelines entitled: “National Judicial Council COVID-19 Policy Report: Guidelines for Court Sittings and Related Matters in the COVID-19 Period’’, had aimed at protecting judges and others against the pandemic.
Analysts are convinced that much can be achieved by leveraging technology for robust virtual court hearing.
They, however, believe that sustaining remote hearing will require relevant skill development by lawyers and judicial officers and workers.
A Delta-based lawyer and researcher, Prof. Teddy Idiabeta, argues that lawyers and judicial officers must upgrade their skills and invest in understanding the intricacies of remote hearing, for success.
Idiabeta, the Founder of Prof Teddy Idiabeta Law Consult, is convinced that the gains of virtual hearing are enormous.
“Hybrid hearing is here to stay. It was first virtual hearing but it has evolved to what we now refer to as hybrid hearing.
“There are three types – the court-ordered, the party-initiated, and the lawyer-initiated virtual hearing.
“The challenge, however, is that while some judges and lawyers are open to the technology of virtual hearing, some are not, because they are not tech savvy.
“Lawyers need to get training on virtual cross-examination. It is easier to tell if a witness in a virtual or hybrid witness box is telling a lie than when they are in a physical witness box, and it a quick way to dispense justice.
“You will know if a witness is reading out of a script in a virtual hearing, and virtual court hearing is mostly common in the high and magistrates’ courts,’’ he explains.
The professor, however, notes that virtual hearing is still not feasible in the Supreme Court.
“As lawyers, we have to be deliberate, we have to take initiatives and embrace this trend; some of us run away when we hear that a witness is not in the country.
“International clients are ready to pay for technology-related services, it is a money spinner.
“The benefits are enormous, it is an opportunity to promote the rule of law and become an international lawyer.”
Idiabeta emphasises that lawyers need to change their mindsets to succeed in the technology space.
Another lawyer, Mr Joseph Ikhai, is optimistic that virtual hearing is the way to go to increase transparency in the justice system.
He, however, notes that poor power supply, poor internet connection and disruptions in communication pose challenges.
A public commentator, Mr Jude Ugba, notes that in spite of the challenges, an Ikeja Magistrates’ Court has successfully conducted a virtual hearing while an Ikeja Special Offences Court virtually cross-examined a pathologist.
Mr Gabriel Tinka, Managing Partner, First Eden Solicitors, is of the opinion that virtual court hearing has given law a modern face.
“It has given relevance. Law has to keep up with time and events in order not to lose its relevance, thereby leaving the society lawless and ungovernable.
“The adoption of this virtual hearing has made law relevant in the face of a changing world, thereby curbing anarchy and arbitrariness.
“Virtual hearing also enhances security of all parties – the judge, lawyers, litigants and the public,’’ he says.
He regrets that some lawyers and others have died in accidents or kidnapped on their way to the courts.
“Many people have lost their lives in the bid to meet up with court physical sittings.
“This can be prevented when we embrace virtual hearing process,” he argues.
Tinka also believes that virtual hearing process is convenient.
“I cannot over-emphasise the convenience of this process. It saves time and energy.
“Litigants and their lawyers can only come online when it is their scheduled time of hearing, instead of sitting aimlessly at the courtroom waiting for their cases to be called.
“Justice is quickly dispensed using the virtual hearing process. We all know that an average case in Nigeria can take some years before judgment is eventually given.
“This virtual process has relieved witnesses outside of jurisdiction the stress of travelling just to attend a court sitting.”
He expresses optimism of improvement in Nigeria’s jurisprudence based on the evolving approach.
Analysts are hopeful that virtual hearing will receive a boost in Nigeria in 2023 through adequate preparation by judicial officers and workers, lawyers, litigants and the general society.(NAN)