Volume 20 No 12 (2022)
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In December 2019 a hitherto unknown Coronavirus Disease (otherwise called COVID-19) was discovered in Wuhan China and the world as we knew it has not been the same ever since. In the wake of the outbreak of the disease, the world virtually went into a lockdown and almost all activities came to a halt. The courts were not spared. From the 4th day of May 2020 in Nigeria, a gradual easing of the lockdown was announced by the government and new guidelines were set by the National Judicial Council (NJC) to regulate proceedings post COVID-19 era. These new guidelines have introduced remote proceedings into the administration of justice and like most things new, a lot of dust is being raised as to the constitutionality or otherwise of the provisions of the guidelines. In particular, section 36(3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) states that “proceedings in courts or tribunals for the determination of the civil rights of a person shall be held in public”. Does the stipulation by the guidelines that proceedings can be conducted remotely go contrary to the provision of the Constitution that proceedings shall be “in public”? By the guidelines, it appears correct to conduct virtual trials of cases without a prior amendment of section 36(3) and (4) of the Constitution. For more than two decades, judgements of superior courts in Nigeria have set aside many decisions of the lower courts for apparent violations of the constitutional requirement to conduct trials in public. In July 2020, the debate on the constitutionality of the virtual trial in the administration of justice in Nigeria finally reached the Supreme Court which eventually ruled that “as of today, virtual sitting is not unconstitutional.” It appears the matter has been put to rest. However, this paper argues that there are still outstanding issues. For instance, is the permissibility absolute? In other words, are there limitations to the permissibility of virtual trials in the Nigerian courts? At what point in time can the Nigerian courts revert to compliance with the constitutional requirement to compulsorily conduct all trials in public?
covid 19, constitutionality, virtual, trials, Nigeria.
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