COVID-19: Senate moves to legalise virtual court proceedings 

Amidst the deadly scourge, COVID-19 which has endangered courtroom proceedings, a Bill seeking legislation of virtual court proceedings through alteration of the Constitution passed first reading in the Senate on Tuesday.

The Bill, “1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, 2020 (SB. 418),” was sponsored by Senator representing Ekiti Central, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele.

According to Senator Bamidele who incidentally is chairman, Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, the Bill would push for the much-needed corresponding amendment of relevant provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, in giving legal teeth to virtual court proceedings.

The provisions of the bill as contained in the draft copy, presented to lawmakers, include the amendment of Section 36 sub-section (3) of the 1999 Constitution.

It reads thus: “This section is hereby amended by the addition of the following:

“Provided that nothing in this subsection shall invalidate proceedings of a court or the proceedings of a tribunal relating to matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) where same is held by remote hearing or any virtual means now in existence or yet to be developed.

“Section 36 subsection (4) is hereby amended by addition of sub-paragraph (c) as follows: (c) nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall invalidate proceedings of a court or the proceedings of a tribunal relating to matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) where same is held by remote hearing or any virtual means now in existence or yet to be developed.

“Section 36 subsection (12) is hereby amended by the addition of the following subsection (13): In this section, ‘remote hearing’ means proceedings or hearing of court conducted via zoom, Skype, WhatsApp video or any other social media platform or technological innovation.”

Speaking with Tribune Online, Senator Bamidele said the amendment became necessary in view of Section 36(3) which made public hearing a sufficient condition in the determination of disputes.

He said: “The National Judicial Council in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic and the inability of courts to hold courtroom proceedings, had taken steps to ensure continued administration of justice through virtual proceedings in accordance with global best practices, with some State Chief Judges coming out to openly adopt and implement the NJC guidelines.

“However, Nigerian lawyers have been divided over this issue as there has been an ongoing debate among legal practitioners as to whether or not virtual hearing is real hearing as provided for in the Constitution while some are insisting that the word ‘public’ in the Constitution shall continue to mean physical courtroom or other designated place unless and until the relevant provisions in section 36 of the Constitution are amended.”

The Chairman Senate Committee on Judiciary who equally is a member of the Body of Benchers, said the National Judicial Council must work with stakeholders to manage the current situation until “we rewrite our Constitution in this regard as neither the practice direction, rules of court, nor an Act of the National Assembly can change the legal position so that we do not bury our heads in the sand yet again until the sand is blown off by the storm of section 1, subsection 3 (inconsistency clause) of the Constitution if and when it is ignited.”

He appealed to journalists to be patient and allow the Bill to come up for second reading on the next legislative day before subjecting it to public scrutiny and analysis in the media.

According to him, once copies of the Bill were distributed among senators to enable them study the details before the next adjourned date, other distinguished senators would be able to make their further inputs if any, while the Bill would be subjected to public scrutiny through public hearing for stakeholders both from the Bar and the Bench to actively participate in fine-tuning it as a very important piece of legislation.

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