Debate as virtual proceedings in Lagos courts now attract N30,000 per session


The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Olanrewaju Alogba has announced that all virtual proceedings will henceforth attract a fee of N30,000 (Thirty Thousand Naira Only) per session.

In a circular from the Office of the Chief Registrar of the state high court, Justice Alogba specifically said the new policy takes effect from April 1, 2024.

Explaining the stage of the proceedings when the payment is expected to be made, the circular said the first thing to be done is entering an application for virtual hearing of a specific case at the court registry.

“Upon approval, payment shall be made to the court, and the Assistant Chief Registrar (ACR) Litigation – Ikeja or Lagos, as appropriate, will schedule the case for hearing,” the circular said.

The circular emphasizes that no other office or officer is authorized to conduct or schedule cases for virtual proceedings in the High and Magistrate Courts of Lagos State.

“The First Hightower Infotech Ltd. (FHTI) will continue to provide internet access and service for the courts where they currently offer such services.

“Court Registrars are directed to ensure strict compliance with the circular and to give it the widest publicity it deserves,” the circular added.

Virtual court proceedings have become increasingly common in Nigeria as a means to ensure the continuity of court operations while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

BAR & BENCH WATCH recalls that with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country and the attendant lockdown and restriction of movements, most lawyers felt frustrated as they could not practice their trade.

The development made the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to direct that cases that were time-bound and urgent be heard.

But lawyers could not leave their houses because of lockdowns imposed by states.

To ensure that the justice system was not grounded to a total halt, some senior lawyers wrote to the CJN to consider adoption of remote court sitting.

In one of such correspondences, the Justice Reform Project (JRP), in a letter dated April 14, 2020, urged the CJN “to consider issuing immediate Court Directions and Protocols to ensure the continued administration of justice in the face of the pandemic.”

That made the CJN in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) to set up a 10-man committee for the purpose.

The committee, headed by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour (now retired), was to come up with urgent practical strategic measures to ensure courts continue to function despite the lockdown and restrictions arising from the COVID-19 challenges.

Apart from Justices Rhodes-Vivour, other members of the committee included the Acting President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Monsem Dongbam and the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho.

Also on the committee were President of the National Industrial Court, Justice B. B. Kanyip; Chief Judge of the FCT, Justice Ishaq Bello; Justice Kashim Zannah and Justice O. A. Ojo.

Three private practicing Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) were also part of the committee.

There were two former Presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)— Paul Usoro and A. B. Mahmoud with another senior member of the inner bar, D. D. Dodo.

The committee at the end of its assignment, among other recommendations in line with the Federal Government’s guidelines for taming the spread of COVID-19, recommended the use of technology by way of virtual sitting in court proceedings, a decision the CJN and the NJC approved.

By a way of circular with Reference Number: NJC/CIR/HOC/II/656 issued in April 2020, the CJN recommended the remote court proceeding to heads of different levels of court to mitigate the suspension of courts’ activities during COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the recommendation, Heads of Courts issued Practice Directions for remote court sitting pursuant to powers granted them by the 1999 Constitution (As amended).

Lagos State was one of the few states in the country that responded to the circular by coming up with its own Practice Direction with the signing of the “Lagos State Judiciary Remote Hearing of Cases (COVID-19 Pandemic Period) Practice Direction” by the state chief judge, Justice Kazeem Alogba, in May 2020.

The said Practice Direction approved the use of digital platforms like Zoom, Skype or any other video- and audio-conferencing platform approved by the Court for the hearing and determination of urgent cases.

Justice Mojisola Dada of the Criminal Judicial Division of the Lagos High Court rode on the state’s newly rolled out Practice Direction to deliver the May 4, 2020 judgment sentencing Mr Olalekan Hameed to death for robbing and murdering his victim, Mrs Jolaoso.

Also in Borno, the state government in April 2020 set up a virtual courtroom for hearing cases through teleconference, using digital tools.

The Chief Judge of the High Court of Borno State, Justice Kashim Zannah  said that although the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the development, he assured that the state would continue to take advantage of available technologies even after the pandemic.

The Federal High Court and some other state judiciaries equally issued separate but similar Practice Directions on virtual court proceedings in their jurisdictions and commenced the implementation of same.

After the pandemic, Lagos State continued with the use of the virtual sitting until the introduction of fee by the state judiciary.

The latest development has divided lawyers into two opposing camps.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a fee for the virtual proceeding  services in Lagos State may be seen as a way to generate revenue for the judiciary and to cover the costs associated with providing the necessary technology and infrastructure.

The move has however sparked a hot debate among legal practitioners and the public, with some questioning the affordability and accessibility of virtual court proceedings for all parties involved.

Others argue that the fee is reasonable, given the convenience and efficiency offered by remote hearings.

As the directive comes into effect, it remains to be seen how it will impact the administration of justice in Lagos State and whether other states will follow suit in introducing fees for virtual court sittings.

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