Supreme Court dismisses suits challenging courts’ virtual sitting

A court used to illustrate the story
A court used to illustrate the story

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck out two suits by Lagos and Ekiti State governments, challenging the legality of virtual court sittings.

A seven-member panel of the apex court, led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, struck out the suits after they were withdrawn by the plaintiffs.

The first suit with number: SC/CV/260/2020 was filed by the Attorney General of Lagos State, Moyosore Onigbanjo.

The suit has the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation and the National Assembly as the first and second defendants respectively.

The Lagos State government in the suit had urged the apex court to determine whether having regard to Section 36(1), (3) and (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) use of technology by remote hearings of any kind, whether, by Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Skype or any other audiovisual or video-conference platform by the Lagos State High Court or any other Courts in Nigeria in aid of hearing and determination of cases are constitutional.

But at the resumed hearing of the matter on Tuesday, Mr Onigbanjo withdrew the suit, having taken a hint from the apex court that the suit was speculative and preemptive.

Following its withdrawal, the apex court, in a unanimous decision, struck it out.

The court also struck out a similar suit marked, ‘’SC/CV/261/2020’’ filed by the Attorney General of Ekiti state, Olawale Fapohunda, against the AGF, shortly after the suit was withdrawn.

In the suit, Mr Fapohunda asked the court to determine whether the directive issued by the AGF to the Heads of Courts at Federal and State levels, as it relates to the conduct of virtual proceedings in court, is not a violation of the federalism provisions of the 1999 Constitution.

He also asked the apex court to determine if the directive issued in line with the National Judicial Council is not a violation of the constitutional provisions on fair hearing as it relates to the conduct of criminal trials in public.

Furthermore, the senior lawyer asked the court to set aside or strike down directives to the extent that they purport to be binding on the Ekiti State High Court for being inconsistent with the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Apart from the Attorney General of the Federation, the Attorneys General of Lagos and Ogun States who have implemented virtual court proceedings were also listed as second and third defendants.

The Ekiti State government further asked that the apex court determines whether the AGF’s guidelines are not a derogation from the legislative, executive and judicial law-making, law execution and adjudicatory rules making powers exclusively vested in states of the federation in respect of states courts, by virtue of Sections 1(3), 4(6), 5(2), 6(2), 272 and 272 and 274 of the Constitution.

The plaintiff also asked the apex court to decide whether Lagos and Ogun states, having adopted virtual court hearings pursuant to the lockdown, the three arms of Government in Ekiti State are bound to conduct their legislative, executive and judicial functions pertaining to adjudication in state courts in compliance with the directive upon which the National Judicial Council formulated the provisions of Articles E(1) to E(13) of its Guidelines (issued on May 7, 2020).

But Justice Rhodes-Vivour in his ruling held that “As of today virtual sitting is not unconstitutional”.

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“This suit is speculative and having been withdrawn, it is struck out,” he said.

The issue of the constitutionality of virtual court hearing has trailed controversy since the National Judicial Council(NJC) on May 7, released guidelines for court proceedings to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Many lawyers have had divergent views as regards to the legality of the directive.

A number of High Courts including those in Lagos, Ogun, and Borno states, have proceeded to implement the guidelines while many states have been adamant in their opposition to the directive, insisting that only a constitutional amendment or pronouncement by the Supreme Court can ensure the legality of virtual court sittings.



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