By Samuel Oyadongha, Henry Ojelu, Demola Akinyemi, Egufe Yafugborhi, Bashir Bello, Davies Iheamnachor, Harris Emanuel, Ibrahim HassanWuyo & Chinedu Adonu
As the second wave of COVID-19 continues to ravage countries across the world, Law and Human Rights examines how the pandemic has impacted the course of justice in Nigeria. This edition also assesses the level of compliance with Covid-19 safety protocols by the judiciary in some states in the country. Excerpts:
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lagos State Courts were among the busiest courtrooms in the country. On average, each of the state high courts handled over 20 cases daily. That has now changed with the enforcement of Covid-19 safety protocols which have effectively limited access to courtrooms.
According to guidelines released by the state judiciary, all courtrooms must amongst others, maintain social distancing which means sitting at 50 per cent capacity. The protocol though highly necessary has, however, reduced the number of cases that each court can hear per day. However, since the second wave of the pandemic began, only a few courts sit with only litigants and their lawyers in attendance. Urgent cases and time-bound trials are given priority while other pending matters are adjourned.
A lawyer, Adekunle Abiodun told our correspondent that the safety protocols adopted by the state judiciary, though commendable, has greatly affected his law practice. He also said that most of his cases before the courts have suffered several adjournments.
“It is really a terrible situation we find ourselves here. Three of my cases have suffered several adjournments because the trial judge did not sit. Some courts hear two to three cases daily. I know we must do everything to be safe from the pandemic, but the courts must also know the danger of allowing cases to suffer several adjournments,” he said.
A litigant, Kuye Martin told our correspondent of the challenge he faced coming from Abuja to appear as a witness in a land dispute case, only to be informed that the matters had been adjourned. He said: “Last month, this matter was adjourned. This week again, after coming all the way from Abuja, another adjourned date was given because the judge could only hear three cases. This is really bad.”
Our correspondent who monitored the situation in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, observed that lawyers and litigants are also complaining about the delay in the dispensation of justice due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was gathered that only a few cases are slated in the court list for hearing in a particular day.
Litigants also bemoaned that their means of incomes have dwindled which make it difficult for them to pay their counsel legal fees, which invariable have affected the incomes of lawyers.
Lamenting the situation, a lawyer, Kingsley Eton said: “Sometimes, you put on appearance for clients and after the appearance; they would tell you that they don’t have the appearance fees to pay. We use to have many cases in the court list, but right now, we only have three or four which has led to cases being prolonged.
Speaking in the same vein, another lawyer, Aniefiok Utuk said “A situation where the court does not sit regularly affects the lawyer that goes to court to litigate their clients’ cases. So, it affects the profession. It has exacted a heavy toll on the lawyers and cases.
In Port Harcourt, Rivers State, our correspondent observed that the Covid-19 protocol approved by Governor Nyesom Wike is well adhered to in all the courts in the state capital.
Only a few people are allowed into the courtrooms by clerks in every case to ensure that the principle of social distancing is maintained. Judiciary workers also ensure that people wear their nose masks before entering the court premises.
The impact of the protocols as highlighted by some lawyers suggest that several cases have suffered setbacks because either the courts didn’t sit or long adjournments were given. A lawyer, Kingdom Chukwuezie, said that the directive that courts hear a maximum of five cases daily was affecting justice as according to him, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’
He said: “The litigants are constrained and lawyers too are also constrained by the development. For the litigants, you may be lucky to have your case adjourned within three months. For a matter that would have had six to seven adjournments, now with adjournments dates so far apart because the judge is handling few cases, litigants now have to endure not having their cases determined on time.”
Prince Wiro, activist and regular visitor to the courts in defense of rights of the underprivileged, said, “Of course, the delayed course of justice also translates to the increased cost of justice for the litigants, who bear the burden. The more adjournments, the more appearance fees litigants have to pay, including transporting themselves to the courts.
“It provides a compelling need to further advance the digitalization of the justice system to several aspects of the process having to do with the filing of case or addresses can be done online or virtual where possible. Something has to be done even if it means adjusting the laws.”
In Enugu State, another lawyer, Olu Omotayo noted that the measures put in place by the courts such as wearing of face mask, observing social distance, washing of hand with detergent and many other COVID-19 protocols were highly observed by the judges and lawyers but stressed that such measures delay justice delivery as some lawyers were barred from coming into the court premises.
According to Omotayo, the impact of COVID-19, in Enugu, has been devastating across all sectors of the society and the legal profession which is not exempted from the fallout of the pandemic. According to him, lawyers and law firms are battling with continuing to provide services for their clients.
He said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the judiciary here in Enugu just like other sectors of the economy. The closure of the courts for months last year when the pandemic was at its peak, really affect the justice system as a lot of cases suffered long adjournment and it has a negative effect on both the litigants and legal practitioners.”
In Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, lawyers and litigants told our correspondent that hard as it was to cope with the long adjournment of cases, they had no option than to obey the safety protocols put in place by the state government.
A lawyer based in the state, Kelvin Ejelonu captured the situation in the courts thus: “They will tell you to limit strictly to the time for your case and if you don’t have a case at that time, you are not supposed to be inside the courtroom until when it is time allocated to your case. The move is to cut down on the number of people that will be inside the courtroom at any given time.
“Another thing is that as a lawyer, instead of you to come with maybe two, three, four or more lawyers, they restrict you to only one lawyer per party. Generally, you cannot enter any court without your face masks. The protocols and procedures are for our safety and we have to abide by them and comply because it is their courts and they have the right to walk you out.”
Also speaking, Iniruo Wills, said “The pandemic has expectedly caused delays added to the typical delays in our judicial process, but we should waste no breath bemoaning that now. We need to focus on improved adaptation methods. First, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 should have worked out a nationwide mask mandate by now, especially in light of the reported second wave sweeping like harmattan fire.
That will not only directly minimize infections but also be a visual mass awareness tool. For the justice sector in particular, it is time for the National Judicial Council, Nigerian Bar Association, Attorney-General of the Federation and other managers of our adjudicatory machinery to urgently institutionalise virtual court proceedings on a revolutionary level, far beyond the token introduction soon after the outbreak of the pandemic.
Interested Nigerian lawyers and parties are now able to stay in Nigeria and observe or attend UK and EU court sessions relevant to them, at least since last year. What are we waiting for?”