The recent Supreme Court judgement endorsing virtual court proceedings was the focus of the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, who in his presentation as Keynote Speaker at a webinar said: “Our system of justice, another catastrophic round of technical decisions around the constitutionality of virtual proceedings.” The Vice President stated this last Thursday at a webinar on media coverage of virtual court proceedings in Nigeria, organised by the Gavel International Ltd.
According to Prof. Osinbajo, “We are at a point where at least, we know that virtual hearings are legal. This means that the Supreme Court is satisfied that appropriate means can be found to ensure that hearings are public, and that the press and indeed, members of the public, can access the proceedings”.
“I think that an opportunity that this offers us, is to get rid of this issue of technicality as much as possible. And, I am so pleased that the Supreme Court did not even hesitate in saying that virtual proceedings are legal. It is really a breath of fresh air, considering the ways that we tend to magnify the issue of technicality to the point where you wonder where justice is.”
Continuing, the Vice President said “I am hoping that the opportunity we have in virtual proceedings will also be an opportunity to dispense with several of the unnecessary technical rules that we have in our adjectival law, laws of procedure, evidence and all that. And hopefully, we are able to get to the heart of trials and the heart of the matter such that we are not bugged down unnecessarily by technicality”.
“Reporting of court proceedings is a crucial exercise of the right to fair hearing, a cornerstone of which is that hearings must be held in public. How that right will be given full expression when court proceedings are within the encrypted confines of virtual platforms, is really the subject of our conversion today.”
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The Attorneys-General of Lagos and Ekiti States deserve our commendation, for bringing the matter before the Supreme Court. They asked the court to determine whether having regard to the constitutional requirement that court proceedings save for some exceptions must be held in public, and whether court hearings by the use of technology, by remote hearings of any kind, whether Zoom or WhatsApp, Microsoft Themes, Skype or any other audio-visual or video-conference platform, are constitutional.
The Supreme Court while dismissing the suit themselves as premature and speculative, nevertheless, said that as things stood today, virtual proceedings were constitutional. This wise approach of the Court probably saved our system of justice another catastrophic round of technical decisions, around the constitutionality of virtual proceedings.
It may also be cautiously taken as a signal that the Supreme Court expects the lower courts to go down this new path, with as little attention to technicality as possible.
So, we are at a point where at least, we know that virtual hearings are legal. This means that the Supreme Court is satisfied that appropriate means can be found to ensure that hearings are public, and that the press and indeed, members of the public can access the proceedings.
Just as the physical court can only sit a determined number of persons, so the virtual court, depending on the platform being used, would probably have a stated number of persons who can access the proceedings.
Practice directions may have to indicate how, and in what order invitations would be issued especially to the public.
In 2018, a British court jailed for 18 months, the chair of the UK legal defence league, Mr Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Morrison). Now, here is a man who was broadcasting on social media outside of Crown Court in Leeds in the UK, where a trial was taking place. He was accused of broadcasting live, and within hours of this broadcast, over half a million people had viewed the broadcast, and the court felt that his actions could have cost it over hundreds of thousands of pounds in re-running the trial, because of the prejudice that was introduced by reporting the case live, in the manner that he did.
Moderated by Dr. Rueben Abati of Arise TV and Shola Soyele of Channels TV, the webinar also had critical interventions from discussants which included Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN who was represented by his son, Mr Bode Olanipekun, SAN, Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN, Mr Richard Akinola and Dr Chidi Odinkalu.