Nigeria Senate introduces bill to legalise virtual court proceedings

Nigerian Senate Chambers
Nigerian Senate Chamber used to illustrate the story.

A constitution alteration bill seeking to legalise virtual court proceedings has been introduced to the Senate.

The bill was one of the few bills read for the first time at the start of plenary on Tuesday.

The Senate Tuesday passed for first reading, a for the legalisation of virtual court proceedings.

The bill titled 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Alteration) Bill, sponsored by Michael Bamidele (APC, Ekiti Central), is aimed at ensuring the much needed corresponding amendment of relevant provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, in giving legal support to virtual court proceedings.

The bill is to amend Section 36(3) of the constitution by adding 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 also amended by the 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.

And Section 36 subsection(12) is amended by 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.”

The drafter of the bill explains further that section 36(3) is sufficiently controversial enough now in terms of the requirement of public hearing and determination of disputes.

This, he said, endangers the results of proceedings eventually held virtually and except the amendment is done urgently, the whole judicial functions of the nation will remain paralysed.

Mr Bamidele said the bill requires expeditious consideration and passage.

“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,” he said.

The lawmaker said once copies of the Bill were distributed among senators, they 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.

Details of the bill will be deliberated on another legislative day.

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