The Tomorrow We Never Foresaw Has Come! Virtual Court Session in Edo State, to be or not to be- Dennis Osaretin Esq.

The writer, shall attempt to provoke some thoughts and spark some new innovative thinking about, how we run and manage our courts, in view of the unexpected realities, foisted on us and administration of justice systems in our jurisdictions.

The term Innovation as described by Webster’s dictionary is—the introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device.  However what Webster’s didnt tell us, is how innovation has become, the backbone of your day to day survival suggesting how crucial it is to embrace innovation, in order to strive and compete among others in todays business world.

As a matter of style, as it has become customary, this writer, will draw wisdom from very powerful and innovative minds as encapsulated in some of their famous quotes, in order to drive home some very salient gospel truth.

Albert Einstein, said thus “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”

William Pollard, on his part, suggested that “Without change there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable”

Winston Churchill, in his rendition, opined that “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse”

Victor Hugo, put it succinctly that “Stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come”

Ciputra; was of the view that “A dream will not become an innovation if there is no realization”

In a recent report put together by Kelechi Ewuzie On dated April 18, 2020 published by the Business Day News paper titled – Innovation seen as key to effective administration of justice post Covid-19

The reporter made copious reference to a paper delivered by a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who was of the strong views that the “Adoption of innovation, strong will, and discipline in the administration of Justice will help to guard against misplaced justice situation in Nigeria, post COVID-19 pandemic, the senior advocate, Olanrewaju Adigun Fagbohun, vice-chancellor, Lagos State University. Mr Fagbohun decried the suspension of a court sitting in the country pursuant to the directive of the Chief Justice Nigeria as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, without clear guidelines and directives that would ensure that the wheel of justice does not grind to a halt.

Fagbohun, who spoke as a guest speaker on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Administration of Justice in Nigeria, What does the Future Hold?” at the 2020 Knowledge Sharing Series, a virtual lecture organised by the LASU Law Alumni graduate class of 2008, noted that COVID-19 was a wake-up call for Nigeria, urging the judiciary (lawyers and judicial officers) to fully go digital. “The Judiciary in Nigeria must fully go digital. It is not rocket science and enough of excuses. Let us have robust and open internet access in all courts. There are existing templates that will guide digitisation of court processes,”

The senior advocate of Nigeria, identified four commendable global justice system responses: 1) suspension of in-person proceedings to safeguard people’s health; 2) implementation of technology tools to continue proceedings in urgent or necessary situations; 3) keeping track of proceedings that are daily being postponed, and 4) pro-active thinking on such issues like the effect of a statute of limitation and forfeiture as may arise post COVID-19. He reminded the over 100 participants that the Lagos State Judiciary started well on the path of technology. Somewhere along the line, the challenge of continuity of policies clearly stagnated innovation In the Lagos State Judiciary, online listing of cases, Case Management System, E- filing system, use of verbatim recorder among others was already in use for quite some time. He concluded that “For as long as Nigeria continues on the same path as it is currently, administration of justice will continue to fail on deliverables.

This writer upon a further study and comparative analysis, tried to observe what has been done in other developed clime such as Europe and America.

In Europe there seems to be an already established protocle on the subject, from our findings Cyber justice tools are already deployed in European judicial systems, there are existing cyberjustice systems at the European level on the basis of the data available, It is also supplemented by information provided by member States.

The systems identified have been grouped according to the aim pursued by their promoter: access to justice, communication between courts and professionals, direct assistance for the work of judges and registrars and, finally, court administration.

These guidelines on how to drive change towards Cyberjustice
Stock-taking of tools deployed and summary of good practices is well documented.

It is interesting to note that, access to justice as a notion must be understood here in a broad sense, as it includes both ways of accessing the law (online information on one’s rights, publication of case law) and access to dispute settlement procedures (online granting of legal aid, referral to a court or mediation service). Access to justice is a notion frequently advanced by judicial systems to justify the use of digital tools, which, depending on the context, are intended to increase the amount of information or level of services available to court users or to lower the barriers (taken to mean the material and financial costs) to accessing existing services.

As early as 2008, the “Checklist for promoting the quality of justice and the courts” underlined the important link between IT and access to justice and many researchers especially in Europe, have devoted alot of resources in this area. More recently, a Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly resolution of November 2015 pointed out that access to justice “is a cornerstone of any democratic State based on the rule of law, and a prerequisite for citizens’ effective enjoyment of their human rights |and that] access to the justice system often entails high costs in terms of time and money”. The Assembly also welcomed the fact that “efforts are being made in a number of States to reform court processes in order to accelerate procedures and make them more affordable, in particular through the use of modern forms of information and communications technology (ICT)”

Information technology therefore holds out the promise of a more accessible public justice service, as long as citizens themselves are connected to the Internet and are prepared to accept this new relationship, and provided that judicial systems are prepared to invest sufficiently in ever more advanced and more complex tools, which necessitate or lead to a reshaping of their organisation and interrelationships, and sometimes even new skills that they must integrate so as to derive full benefit from the new digital services offered to litigants and citizens in general.

In a paper titled “The Role of Information Technology in Modernising the Courts”By Fredrick Egonda-Ntende [Presented to a Conference of the Southern African Judges Commission, Imperial Resort Beach Hotel, Entebbe, Uganda, 3—6 February, 2005]
The author said this much “I have endeavoured to show that information technology is now a tool essential for modernisation of a judiciary or judicial system. But it is only a tool, and if not handled with skill and commitment, it may instead frustrate efforts at modernisation. The process of adoption of IT is as important, or, probably even more important, than just the purchase and installation of IT hardware and software itself. If the process is flawed, it is unlikely that the expected benefits will flow from the IT acquired. It could easily turn out to be a waste of scarce resources with equipment left to gather dust, as its life comes to an end, for IT equipment does have a short lifespan in terms of obsolescence. Information Technology creates both opportunities and challenges. These opportunities and challenges need to be fully grasped, and mastered, if the institutions that you lead are  to take full benefit of what Information Technology offers” he opined.

In another contribution titled “The Basics of a Technology-Enhanced Courtroom” By Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr., While X-raying the American system argued that “The technology used in litigation has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Today’s technology offers products that feature machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, autonomous capability, and more. It includes devices that are wirelessly connected by protocols and processes that make up the Internet of Things. Today’s technology includes machines that analyze data and make decisions or recommendations. And today’s technology also includes information stored in the cloud that is accessible worldwide. Even with all of these advances, lawyers and judges still must be familiar with basic courtroom technology, which still operates similarly to the way it operated 10 years ago”

He argued further that “Before the use of courtroom technology, counsel relied on their courtroom presence, oratory, and enlarged exhibits to carry the day. Today, courtroom presence and oratory have their place, but litigants will likely need much more to meet the expectations of the jury hearing their case. the learned author thereafter recommended the use of available technologirs such as Video Displays,
Annotation Monitors, Witness Monitor, Evidence Camera, Laptop Connections and Other Digital Input Locations Combo VCR/CD/DVD Player, Courtroom Printing and Electronic Storage of Exhibits,
Integrated Controller, Wireless Installation, Remote Witness Testimony and Video Conferences. In conclusion he was of the view that; Building a technology-enhanced courtroom is a learning experience and depends on the preferences of those in control of the installation. Although there are some proven best practices, other aspects and features are a matter of personal preference….The minimum requirements of the courtroom should be the video display and audio sound systems, input connections for video and sound, and an evidence camera. With just these features, you are ready to host or present the majority of evidence offered in most proceedings. The judge and litigants can usually master the use of these features quickly”

Bringing this interesting debate back home to Edo state, unlike Lagos where things appears to have lighthened up abit, with the recent video conferencing and virtual court proceedings held recently, the fears and apprehension of many legal mind seemed to have been aptly captured in an

“ADDRESS BY THE HONOURABLE JUSTICE E. F. IKPONMWEN THE CHIEF JUDGE OF EDO STATE (as she then was) DELIVERED ON 24TH OF MARCH 2017 ON THE OCCASION OF THE RETREAT ORGANISED BY THE STRATEGY PLANNING UNIT OF EDO STATE GOVERNMENT WITH THE THEME: THE STATE OF THE JUDICIARY AND THE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE IN EDO STATE.

My lord the Chief judge as he then was, argued inter alia, while retorting the very words as Per Kenneth W. Dam in the article The Judiciary and Economic Development

“Judicial Reform and Economic Development; A survey of the issues). Where courts are slow in resolving disputes especially commercial disputes it has very adverse effect on the economy. For example a bank will be compelled to lend its funds at astronomical rate of interest because in the event of default by its customers it cannot be assured of recovering the debt within a reasonable time. Infrastructural development which will be of immense benefit to the public at large may not be embarked upon or may be stalled because investors cannot be sure that the judiciary will uphold their right or that it would do so expeditiously.”

He then went ahead to describe vividly the state of our judiciary in Edo state. in her own words; “It is no longer news that our courts are seriously congested. Litigation often involves a lengthy, expensive trial process and it is adversarial. It ends with a win lose situation which may destroy existing relationships. No doubt this has given rise to the need for alternative dispute resolution that has birthed the Edo State Multi-door Court House. There is need to get it functioning and well equipped in terms of training and man power development. When this is done it will help to decongest the courts and encourage investors to invest in the state thereby promoting economic development. In most courts across Edo State Court infrastructure is either descript or lacking. Our legal and judicial system are still largely frozen in the mould in which they were bequeathed by our colonial masters. Little efforts have been made to localize our judicial system to fit into our cultural orientation. Courts rule of procedure and case flow systems are steeped in slow paced regime, while reforms to expand access to justice and to empower courts to use modern day technology to gather, disseminate or verify information, process cases, reduce inefficiency and waste are still largely not underway. Trial procedure and infrastructure are obselete while the general working environment is unfavourable for the judicial worker. I have personally visited some Magistrates court and some courts in Benin as well as living quarters of Judges for the few that are available and find that they are deplorable. I am told that there is a video clip showing this decay and if Mr. Governor allows the clip to be played we can all see the state of our courts in Edo State. Overall our slow pace system of administering and delivering justice and the sad state of physical and operational facilities in the courts reflect what judicial authorities have claimed to be perennial problems of inadequate funding confronting the administration of justice especially with regard to capital expenditure.”

Those were, the very words of the then chief judge who managed that arm of govt at the time and I have nothing to add, but to observe that since she left little or nothing has changed.

My lord, as she then was concluded that “In view of the importance of the independence of the judiciary this retreat will seek to cultivate the understanding of the legislative and executive arms of government on the need to support the clarion call for the independence of the judiciary in Edo State… It is therefore expected that this retreat will fashion out the mode and smooth financial autonomy that will enable the judiciary meet its statutory obligations”

Flowing from the above, and in view of the realities now foisted on us and our justice administration system, it is safe to say that, The tomorrow we never foresaw, has come! The need for Virtual court sessions in Edo state, now stares us all in the face, awaiting our collective responses.

It is the present writer considered view, that lawyers and judges in Edo state in general and Benin city in particular, must brace up and face the present day realities and move with the tides and blend with the trend.

It is therefore highly recommended that the
State high courts should adopt unprecedented cost-saving strategies and innovations. Our courts must, continue to embrace this legacy of innovation to maintain, and even improve, the administration of justice which portends large gains and potential for future innovation in our courts in Edo state.

While we conceed that innovation is often synonymous with new technologies, it is important to note that innovation does not have to be technology-based.Taken alone, new strategies around trial of cases and unbundling legal services have the potentials to transform legal service delivery, and that impact can increase exponentially.  However, technology is not a panacea. Applying or overlaying technology to a bad underlying process still results in a bad process—and may even magnify it. Efforts to innovate should be well thought out, possess a good governance structure and meaningfully measure impacts to the extent possible.

Despite the gains in and changing attitudes toward innovation, our courts in Edo state still lag behind and face systemic challenges. when incorporating technology and other innovative solutions. it suffice to state that the apparent Lack of funds and budgetary allocation might prohibits our courts from hiring and retaining top technology staff and keeping up with the pace of technological advancements and improvements. As a result, our courts in Edo state now finds itself with out-of-date legacy systems, dependent on expensive and lack of improved system. Mind you our courts still remains shut and it’s operation and opening still uncertain and citizens rights and it’s enforcement are in abeyance but other arms of government in the state appear to have since adjusted, same cannot be said of our courts in Edo state.

Our Traditionally designed court systems and insufficient governance structures must now therefore, give way to the present day demands of immediate access to justice and deployment of available technologies that can also make adopting these changes easy to use in a more systematic and meaningful way.

Our laws and rules of court must now be amended to catch up, the chief judge in colloboration with the leadership of the Bar, must therefore issue new practice direction to cater for the exigencies, in line with the pace of technology so as to accommodate and embrace virtual hearing, like what is already being done in Lagos and other states.

In conclusion therefore the admonition of one of the Greatest minds in legal jurisprudence, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, in his work “The Spirit of the Laws” is appropos in that “There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice”

Let’s justice be done, with the aid of technology, though the heavens might fall, trust me the heaven won’t fall!

DENNIS OSARETIN Esq

Currently serves as Assistant Secretary, of the Nigeria Bar Association,Benin branch

He is also a dedicated Human right lawyer, with special bias for media rights and data protection and freedom of information law advocacy and related developments

He is currently retained and recognised as one of the selected media rights lawyer in Nigeria by the Premium Times Center For Investigative journalism

He makes regular guest appearances on various current affairs programs both on radio and television, to propagate the gospel of the law and legal jurisprudence

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