There are concerns over delay of 155,757 court cases in the 2019/2020 legal year arising from the lockdown to contain the global COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
Also, continuation of cases of 51,983 awaiting trial inmates of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) has suffered setback, which would prolong their stay in detention.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on March 29 announced the restriction of movements in the FCT, Lagos and Ogun states for an initial period of 14 days as moves to contain community transmission of the deadly virus. He renewed the lockdown on April 13.
The remaining 36 states of the federation have since announced some form of restriction of movements in a bid to flatten the curve of the coronavirus disease spread.
The courts, being one of the major public places with large gatherings, have also been affected by the government directive. The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, on March 23, directed the suspension of court sittings until further notice.
In a circular to all heads of courts nationwide, the CJN said the directive became necessary to protect judges and staff of courts.
“In view of the reality of the COVID-19 in the country and in order to take further preventive steps, all heads of courts are, from the 24th day of March 2020, directed to suspend court sittings for an initial period of two weeks at the first instance, except in matters that are urgent, essential or time-bound according to extant laws,” the circular read.
“Your lordships are hereby directed to bring the content of this circular to the notice of all stakeholders in justice administration, please,” it added.
As a follow-up, the Acting President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, in a statement directed the suspension of sittings in the court divisions in FCT, Lagos and Ogun except for urgent matters.
“The Bench and Bar are enjoined to strictly observe the guidelines on social distancing as directed by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Counsel and litigants present in court should be limited to 20 persons maximum at all times,” she said in the statement.
The Acting PCA said the appellate court will encourage use of its electronic platforms in filing and exchange of processes to minimise physical contacts among lawyers and litigants which could expose them to the COVID-19.
Fate of 51,983 awaiting trial inmates hangs
The COVID-19 lockdown has also affected the trial of 51,983 awaiting trial inmates in Nigerian Correctional Service facilities nationwide as they may not be able to attend their trial within the period, and many of the cases may be stalled for other more pressing cases.
The 51,983 awaiting trial inmates out of the 73,756 total population in custody represents 70 per cent of the inmates in custodial centres. According to the Nigerian Correctional Service, only 21,773 of the total population are convicted inmates.
Although Section 396 (3) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015, provides for trial on a day-to-day basis, criminal cases in the country move at snail-speed. While many inmates make up to three court appearances in a year, other cases don’t even get called in a year. Some inmates have been in the correctional centres for up to eight years, some for minor offences.
Frequent adjournments, lack of logistics and inability to pay simple fines are some of the major causes of delay in the conclusion of criminal cases in Nigeria.
However, due to the spread of the COVID-19 in crowded places, including the custodial centres, the federal government on April 9 announced presidential pardon to cover 2,600 inmates nationwide.
The Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, announced the programme in a briefing. Also, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), while freeing 70 inmates at Kuje Correctional Centre, FCT, said the directive was part of the United Nations recommendation to the federal government.
For his part, the Controller General of the Nigerian Correctional Service, Ja’afaru Ahmed has said there is no case of COVID-19 in Nigerian custodial centres.
Lockdown worsens case disposal rate
Besides slowing down the progress of the 155,757 cases nationwide for the 2019/2020 legal year, according to records from the National Judicial Council (NJC), the lockdown has also worsened the poor disposal rate for cases in the country.
According to lawyers, before the COVID-19 lockdown, it took an average of two years to determine a regular civil case in Nigerian courts. But the lockdown would lead to longer time to dispose of such cases.
In the 2018/2019 legal year, the Supreme Court received 1,874 cases, while the Court of Appeal received 9,497.
Also, the FCT High Court disposed of 13,961 cases out of 30,582 total cases in the period, which is about 45 per cent disposal rate. The disposal rate is expected to drop further with many of the cases not likely to be heard in the legal year.
Lawyers hit by lockdown
Law lecturer Abdul Mohammed Esq. said review at the end of the current legal year will show lower disposal percentage in the 2019/2020 year than the last legal year because of the effects of the COVID-19.
He explained that although due to social distancing measures there would be reduction of civil cases in the year as there would be absence of conflicts which result in litigations, commercial litigations and criminal cases would increase due to loan defaults and breaches in contractual obligations, hunger among the poor and gaps in policing respectively.
“There will be hunger for lawyers. This is because it is when they go to court that they get money. If they don’t go to court, how will they get money? So, that is the problem,” he said.
We deserve palliatives – Lawyers
Hamid Ajibola Jimoh Esq. called for palliative measures for lawyers who are facing the impact of the social distancing measures put in place by the government which has made them unable to appear in court for their income on the usual day-to-day basis. He said due to the many vacations still to be embarked on by the court and the workload on the judges, many of the cases in courts nationwide may be moved to next year.
“Can you imagine the financial impact of these automatic adjournments on those cases? They might also have to suffer long adjournments as the annual vacation period is just in few weeks and there is no assurance that some of these cases will not proceed to next year,” he said.
Also, Richard Ebie Esq. said the courts ought not to have been shut completely the way it seems because of the many urgent cases.
“They should have allowed the courts to continue to sit with only litigants and counsel in attendance. Now, there are a lot of cases that need urgent attention and they are not being attended to,” he said.
“There are people in detention and awaiting trial, and their cases are kept in abeyance while they languish in jail. In our office, we have clients that were granted bail just before the lockdown, now they cannot perfect their bail because the courts are shut down. Till date, they are still in detention. The situation is very bad. The courts should be partially reopened to attend to these critical cases,” he added.
ICT not used in the courts
A former Deputy Director General of the Nigerian Law School, Professor Ernest Ojukwu, attributed the limited provisions in the rules of courts as one of the major reasons for lack of Information and Communication Technology in the courts. Ojukwu called on the chief judges of states to address the gap experienced with the COVID-19 lockdown to embed ICT in the rules.
“The chief judges can begin by making such rules or issue practice directions to fill such gaps in virtual hearings, especially in non-contested motions. Subsequently, more sustainable reforms may be made in the judiciary,” he said.
An international practitioner, Etigwe Uwa (SAN), also called on the judicial administration to explore ICT in conjunction with the Nigerian Bar Association not only in the period of the COVID-19 lockdown but in the future.
Uwa said hearing via video conference can be made in originating motions, preliminary objections, fundamental rights enforcements and appeals on interlocutory decisions.
“My colleagues in London just concluded trial and got judgment through video conferencing. This is what we ought to be doing. We ought to be more proactive to look at other alternatives. It saves the lawyer and the client transport money, time and also saves judicial time,” he said.
We’ll work with ICT, conclude time-bound cases – Supreme Court
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court said it is working to enhance its Information Technology to ensure the use of electronic proceedings as obtains in most developed countries.
The Director of Information of the apex court, Dr Festus Akande, who disclosed this, assured that judgments are being given in time-bound cases which dates had earlier been fixed as directed by the CJN.
“In the course of time, more judgements will still be given even with the lockdown. We will certainly not rest on our oars in serving the nation to the best of our ability.
As soon as the online platform is fully activated, cases will now be heard remotely, pending when the COVID-19 is finally put under control and normal life resumes in our dear country,” he said.