It is now a cliché that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we knew it before 2020. At the peak of the pandemic, governments and institutions had to enforce very strict measures to check the spread of this deadly novel Corona Virus. The justice sector was not left out in the flurry to clear humans out of the way of the new virus, as courts were shut down all over the world during the period of the total lockdown. Ironically, the pandemic has provided a once in alifetime opportunity for stakeholders in every sector to think strategically and recreate the system to cope with life thereafter. For instance, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant lockdown, countries such as Nigeria would have taken ages to get to the stage where stakeholders in the justice sector are prepared to consider the adoption of appropriate modes of virtual/remote hearing of cases as a viable alternative to the traditional method of physical court proceedings. However, the challenge seems to be that though virtual/remote hearing could speed up trials, and decongest the courts’ dockets, the available methods may not be suitable in all court proceedings. This article therefore seeks to interrogate the suitability or otherwise of adopting virtual/remote hearing in court proceedings, with a view to recommending strategies for the effective deployment of available technology in the administration of justice, so as to reduce the need for in-person physical appearances in court, and avoid undue delays.
A virtual/remote hearing has been defined as a court hearing conducted by audio-visual means, including any of the available video/teleconferencing methods such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Zoom, etc., whereby proceedings can be conducted virtually or remotely, without the need for the parties or their counsel to attend the court physically (Supreme Court of Victoria, 2020). Although teleconferencing is not new to the world of business and corporate meetings, for the judiciary in Nigeria, virtual/remote hearing has been an entirely new concept, viewed with a lot of suspicion and skepticism, and generating a lot of anxiety among practitioners, as courts and technology are frequently regarded as problematic bedfellows, even in developed countries where courtroom technology is much more advanced (Baksi, 2020). This is attributable to the fact that in a court hearing, accurate understanding and recording of the proceedings is of utmost importance, and so, any electronic glitches or interferences can be quite frustrating for both the process and the participants. For a country such as Nigeria, the anxiety surrounding this concept is heightened by the endemic lack of infrastructure, including stable power supply, and strong network signals, needed for seamless internet activity. It is therefore little wonder that the idea of adoption of virtual hearing for court proceedings is taking time to kick off, in spite of its expected benefits to the administration of justice.
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