THE FIRST VIRTUAL COURT HEARING WAS IN BORNO STATE AND NOT IN LAGOS STATE. * Daily Law Tips (Tip 579) by Onyekachi Umah, Esq., LLM. ACIArb(UK)

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While arbitration and arbitrators have been enjoying remote hearings in Nigeria, the courts seem to battling to join the new normal. Arbitrators and counsel in Nigeria, have been handling arbitral references (including very contentious matters) via satellite technologies ahead of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) era, with parties tendering documents and examining witnesses. The recent cacophony of legal arguments on the propriety or otherwise of virtual court hearings in Nigeria, amidst obvious constitutional framework for same, is rather unnecessary.

Remote court hearing has become inevitable to the conservative black and white profession. Hence, heads of courts have issued practise directions for court affairs in this COVID-19 era. The first ever virtual court in Nigeria, according to National Television Authority (NTA) was in the case of State V. Ali Mohammed (Suit BOHC/MG/CR/115/19, where the defendant was found not guilty of murder) at Court 13 (presided over by Justice Fadawu Umar), Borno State High Court, Maiduguri, Borno State. This happened on 27 April 2020. The Chief Judge of Borno State (Justice Kashim Zannah) stated that the virtual hearing was beyond a mere response to COVID-19 rather it was born out of their desire to increase access to justice in Borno State. This came ahead of the popular virtual court hearing in Lagos State on 4 May 2020 in the case of Olalekan Hammeed (often wrongly classified as the first virtual court hearing in Nigeria, in place of the case of State V. Ali Mohammed in Borno State).

However, the Chief Judge of Lagos State issued the first known Practise Direction (Lagos State Judiciary’s Remote Hearing of Cases [COVID-19 Pandemic Period] Practise Direction with effect from 4th May 2020) designed to regulate virtual hearing among others. Similar directions are;

1. The Federal High Court’s Practise Directions 2020 For The COVID-19 Period with effect from 18 May 2020.

2. The High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, COVID-19 Practise Direction 2020 with effect from 11 May 2020.

3. Lagos State Judiciary’s Remote Hearing of Cases (COVID-19 Pandemic Period) Practise Direction 2 dated 15 May 2020), this was to fill a gap in the earlier Practise Direction of 4th May 2020, by specifying that virtual hearing is for cases that can be fully heard and prosecuted with affidavit evidence without need for oral evidence. This includes Fundamental Human Rights Cases, Originating Summons, Originating Motions and Appeals.

4. Court of Appeal’s Guidelines for Expeditious Hearing of Matters in Court and Tribunal. By Orders 3 and 4, the Court of Appeal allows electronic filling and communication. This is an obvious precursor to a detailed guideline for virtual hearing by the Court of Appeal.

My authorities, are:

1. The Federal High Court’s Practise Directions 2020 For The COVID-19.

2. Lagos State Judiciary’s Remote Hearing of Cases (COVID-19 Pandemic Period) Practise Direction.

3. Lagos State Judiciary’s Remote Hearing of Cases (COVID-19 Pandemic Period) Practise Direction 2 .

4. The High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, COVID-19 Practise Direction 2020.

5. The Federal High Court’s Practise Directions 2020 For The COVID-19 Period.

6. Court of Appeal’s Guidelines for Expeditious Hearing of Matters in Court and Tribunal.

7. Mohammed M. Ali, ‘COVID-19: Borno Holds First Virtual Court Session, Judge Acquits Man of Crime’ (Yenlive, 27 April 2020) <https://yenlive.com/news/index.php/news/2859-covid-19-borno-holds-first-virtual-court-session,-judge-acquits-man-of-crime> accessed 21 May 2020

8. Bolanle Olabitman, ‘Borno Sets Up Virtual Courtroom- First in Nigeria’ (TheCable) <https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.thecable.ng/borno-sets-up-virtual-courtroom-first-in-nigeria/amp> accessed 21 May 2020.

9. Bukola Adebayo, ‘A Man Was Sentenced To Death Via Zoom In Nigeria, Sparking Criticism From Rights Groups’ (CNN, 7 May 2020) <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/07/africa/nigeria-zoom-death-sentence-intl/index.html> accessed 21 May 2020

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