About 71 cases were affected by the three-months suspension of sittings by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the President of the Court, Edward Asante, has disclosed.
Mr Asante, who spoke on Tuesday during the inaugural virtual press conference of the court in Abuja, said about 27 cases, whose delivery of judgments were already scheduled by the court, were affected.
He said the court could also not consider the 12 applications filed during the period for accelerated hearing.
Lamenting the impact of the pandemic on the momentum of the court to handle cases generated by the current college of judges, the president said a record 35 decisions, comprising 28 judgments and seven rulings were delivered between September 16, 2018, and September 15, 2019.
He said the court is facing a hectic year ahead, with about 60 cases scheduled for a hearing or judgment between March 23 and October 21, 2020.
Of this number, he said, the court was programmed to deliver 27 judgments and one ruling, while the others were to be heard.
The conference was attended by judges of the court, senior officials of ECOWAS, Ambassadors of ECOWAS Member States accredited to the ECOWAS Commission and journalists from the ECOWAS region.
Mr Asante said the resumption of court sessions on June 22, 2020, was possible due to the substantial investment in the technology, which made it possible for the court to hold virtual hearings, accept the electronic filing of cases and conduct of court sessions.
He said the new system has ensured the introduction of the Electronic Case Management System by the court.
When fully operational, the ECOWAS court president said, court processes would be filed virtually through the court’s network by lawyers and the parties.
Under the new system, he said as soon as the filed process hits the court’s registry, receipt would be acknowledged by the system, which would also certify whether it conformed to the court’s specifications.
“When that is done, then automatically, a copy will be generated and transmitted to the other party, or his lawyer who will already be in our system,” he added.
The system, he said, was self-generative at most stages, as it gives exclusive access to staff and judges whose duties include to see and work on processes at any particular time until the hearing is completed and decision delivered.
As part of the preparations for the resumption of court sessions, Mr Asante said the court updated its Practice Direction on Electronic Case Management of virtual Court sessions, developed a manual guide on the use of Zoom for virtual court sessions and a Lawyers’ Guidelines for Virtual Court sessions.
He challenged Member States to support the court with the resources it requires to function effectively in a post-COVID-19 era, which would require significant reliance on remote technology and the enhancement of its information technology and language staff for effectiveness.
With the entire court currently having only three IT staff as certified in its 2018 organogram and the reduction of translators in the same organogram from nine to six, Mr Asante said the effectiveness of the court, particularly in the post COVID-19 era would be impaired, with direct implications for the timely delivery of justice.
He said judges would need the expedited translation of court processes into the three official languages to facilitate their work.
Inadequate capacity in the language services, he said, could only lead to inordinate delay in the administration of justice despite the reliance on freelance translators with the attendant risks to the secrecy of court documents.
Currently, he said, the court has a backlog of 431 court processes awaiting translation, out of which 98 are into English, 89 others into French and the remaining 224 into Portuguese.