The Federal High Court has said its scramble to catch up with the trend of adoption of virtual hearing amid the closure of physical courts during the ongoing judiciary workers’ nationwide strike, is being hampered by lack of fund.
PREMIUM TIMES understands that the Federal High Court is among many Nigerian courts that still sparingly embrace virtual hearing despite putting in place the COVID-19-motivated practice directions recognising remote proceedings since last year.
This newspaper learnt that the Chief Judge of the court, John Tsoho, had directed his colleagues to deliver judgements via virtual court sitting while the judiciary workers’ strike which entered its seventh week on Tuesday, lingers.
But the court told our reporter that it could not fully join the trend being adopted by other courts due to paucity of fund.
The court’s Chief Information Officer, Catherine Nwandu, said lack of funds had hampered the installation of virtual court facilities across all its jurisdictions.
Mrs Nwandu, however, said the court’s divisions in Abuja, Kano, Lagos and Port-Harcourt had been delivering judgements through virtual proceedings.
“Our judges have been delivering judgements via virtual court proceedings while the strike lingers, but where we have Internet facilities are Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt and Kano Divisions.
“Because of lack of funds, the rest of the court’s divisions cannot sit virtually. We are still trying to cope with essential needs; because of financial constraint, we decided to look at Abuja, Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Kano jurisdictions,” she said.
She attributed the funding problem to the yearly fall in the court’s allocations.
“The budget of the Federal High Court has been on a downward trend; it kept going down whereas we keep recruiting more judges. The budget has been going down for years now,” she said.
Mrs Nwandu explained that the court’s judges had been delivering judgements on time-bound cases like political matters.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, the National Judicial Council (NJC) constituted a committee on virtual court sitting, which the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho is a member,” she said.
But she added that with the Federal High Court having divisions in all the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, “to replicate virtual court proceedings facilities across all the divisions require funds.”
Incidentally, workers under the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN), embarked on the ongoing nationwide strike on April 6 in agitation for the financial independence of the judiciary which they hope would lead to more allocation of funds to the third arm of government.
COVID and virtual hearing
During last year’s COVID-19 lockdown, the court’s Chief Judge, like heads of many other courts in the country, guided by the NJC, issued a practice direction adopting virtual proceedings in May 2020.
The Federal High Court’s version of the practice direction also recognised electronic means of serving court documents and hearing notices during the COVID-19 pandemic period.
Despite having this in place, many courts barely embraced virtual hearing before they fully reopened as the lockdown eased up last year.
But with the judiciary workers’ strike persisting, many of those courts are now racing to join the trend of remote hearings amid rising concerns about judges missing deadlines for delivery of judgments and huge backlog of cases left unaddressed.
The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and the National Industrial Court, all federal institutions, have held skeletal virtual proceedings during the ongoing strike which started on April 6.
Among them all, only the National Industrial Court stands out as the only one that has fully adopted virtual hearing even before the ongoing strike began.
Judiciary’s quest for improved funding
In November 2020, the NJC identified poor allocation of fund as the bane of the judiciary’s efforts to digitise its operations.
Appearing for the budget defence at the House of Representatives’ Committee on Judiciary, the commission’s Executive Secretary of the council, Ahmed Saleh, appealed to the legislative and executive arms of government to increase the funding for the judiciary in line with the realities of the times.
He said some of the challenges facing the judiciary include the non-disbursement of the financial relief promised in the wake of the pandemic.
Mr Saleh also stated that the Supreme Court had, at the time, increased its judges from 12 to 20 which according to him requires more expenses.
He added that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the judiciary to continue to leverage on ICT “which requires more money.”
Ex-CJNs lament insufficient funds
A former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Aloma Mukhtar, had during the Supreme Court’s new legal year ceremony held on September 23, 2013, lamented the poor funding of Nigeria’s judiciary.
She said budgetary allocation to the judiciary had steadily declined from N95 billion in 2010 to N85 billion in 2011, N75 billion in 2012 and to N67 billion in 2013.
“A situation where budgetary allocation to the judiciary continues to drop while the general government budget is on a steady increase every year is clearly an impediment to the quick dispensation of justice in Nigeria and on the whole a setback to the current effort at transforming the judiciary,” she had said.
Similarly speaking on the issue years later in 2016, Ms Mukhtar’s successor, Mahmud Mohammed, said “budgetary challenges permeating the nation, no doubt affects the Judiciary more than any other arm of government, and remains a perennial challenge to judicial independence and the effective performance of our constitutional roles.”
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