First, the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many countries to lockdown socio-political and economic activities, obstructed the Nigerian legal system. It was such that courts were locked down for months, resulting in the delay of administration of justice.
During the lockdown, cases were either postponed or adjourned indefinitely to contain the pandemic. Although some courts resorted to virtual hearing, certain factors like poor electronic broadband and network glitches made the process less effective.
Another significant incident was the aftermath of #EndSARS protests in which some courts like the Lagos High Court, Igbosere, reputed as the oldest judicial building in Nigeria was burnt by hoodlums. This act of arson destroyed structures, sensitive files, exhibits, and other important court properties like the archives. The implication is that the court is faced with a situation, whereby some lost documents would never be regained. It is the height of hooliganism and wanton destruction of government property and has now put big pressure on the already wobbling judicial system.
These developments have reopened the debate on the need for the Judiciary to fully embrace and implement electronic filing known as e-filing. The argument is that judicial automation would ensure important documents are saved electronically and the courts would not face the challenge of retrieving files when critical court infrastructure is burnt.
A former member of the Nigerian Bar Association Criminal Justice Reform Committee (NBA-CJRC), Emeka Nwadioke, observed that the loss of enormous data and documents in the carnage in Igbosere Court evokes a strong sense of discomfort, especially in this era of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and online courts. He believes that the incident should be used as a test case for the entire nation to embark on the process of implementing e-filing in the court system to prevent a similar occurrence.
“As a matter of fact, the need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system in Nigeria has necessitated the use of modern information and communication technology (ICT). Aside from the recent arson of Igbosere High Court, Lagos, it was also observed that the conventional method of justice delivery in the country is marred with avoidable delays in the dispensation of justice and lack of transparency, which can only be solved by embracing an electronic justice system,” he said.
Some stakeholders and legal practitioners like Tunde Fagbohunlu (SAN), Oluwole Kehinde, Yemi Omodele, Kabiru Akingbolu, Wale Ogunade, Kayode Ajulo, Yinka Farounmbi, and Femi Aborishade in separate interactions with The Guardian harped on the need for ICT to be employed in conducting most of the activities in Nigerian courts, considering its successful adoption and use in some other jurisdictions.
They observed that it had succeeded in the banking system when it was deployed. According to them, it would solve some of the current ambiguities in the nation’s court system if appropriately implemented.
The Lagos State judiciary under the administration of former Chief Judge, Justice Ayotunde Philips had introduced e-filing in the judicial sector. Her successors, Justices Olufunmilayo Atilade, Opeyemi Oke, and the incumbent, Kazeem Alogba all subscribed to this project. However, it seems some forces are not fully comfortable with the implementation of the e-filling method, for whatever reasons.
Notwithstanding, some of the factors identified to be militating against e-filing in the country include epileptic power supply, which has affected and still affects almost all facets of endeavours; inadequate and lack of IT skills among court workers including judges, lawyers, and courts staff. Also included are poor and inefficient Internet network services. Of course, electronic methods would depend on a good internet network to function effectively and where the service providers cannot guarantee the same, then, that becomes a major setback. There are also the challenges posed by viruses and hackers, who could invade the court’s online sites, with the intention to destroy vital information stored on the site. In addition, the inadequate legal and regulatory framework is a challenge.
Another point is that relevant laws and rules of courts in Nigeria are not fashioned in a way to provide for electronic systems. So, those rules would have to be amended to accommodate virtual operations. Also, poor or inadequate funding of the judiciary adds to the drawback. It is expected that judicial fiscal autonomy would guarantee adequate funding to embark on automation.
Reacting to the issue, Fagbohunlu (SAN) said: “That our courts still adopt medieval filing system is unacceptable. Electronic filing was designed to fast track the process and curtail delays. The perception is that it is far from flawless.
“The way forward is aggressive automation of our courts, more so with the advent of virtual hearing. Mainstreaming technology in all facets of the adjudicatory process has become compelling and urgent. It will greatly improve efficiency, curb corruption, and boost justice delivery.
“I think it is a combination of budgetary factors and the time it usually takes to achieve a “cultural paradigm shift” (i.e. people are normally suspicious of the disruptive effects of change, and need to be persuaded of the benefits when compared with the costs). Without a doubt, if the judicial system were modernised with e-filing, cloud storage, and data encryption, the effects of the arson at the High Court would have been significantly mitigated.”
In his observation, Kehinde told The Guardian that the major problems are facilities, infrastructure, and personnel. “These include electricity, internet, IT personnel, and equipment. Most of the basic things and human capital to achieve the objective of e-filing are not in place, thereby causing delays and total failure of the required electronic system,” he noted.
Another lawyer, Omodele said: “When e-filing system was introduced to the Lagos State judiciary some years ago, everybody welcomed it but after some time, it was discovered that it caused the undue delay while filing new suits, particularly urgent ones.
“Permanent suit numbers take days, if not weeks before the same is generated thereby making the system frustrating. Be that as it may, one of the benefits of the e-filing system is to act as a backup for the documents filed. How true this is, I don’t know. The effectiveness of e-filing would be tested following what happened recently in the Lagos judiciary during the #EndSARS crisis. If it works, lost files would be retrieved.”
To Akingbolu, the problems militating against e-filing in Lagos or anywhere in Nigeria are many. “The greatest of them is the poor quality of the network in the country by all the service providers. More often than not, you may struggle for several hours or a whole day trying to log in or generate a code for payment.
“Some other time, the servers may be down completely, making it impossible to utilize it in filing processes. Therefore, until we have a full-proof service delivery by the communication companies, we cannot get anywhere with e-filing. Another problem with this wonderful innovation is the electricity supply. Where there is the epileptic power supply, to successfully utilize electronic filing for court cases would be highly difficult, if not impossible,” he declared.
Akingbolu who noted that the innovation of e-filing is good added that it can go a long way to make litigation very easy and convenient. This, he said, is because any information stored in the court or computer systems of the court would always have a backup. “In that way, even if the courtroom is burnt, the backups in the cloud can be retrieved and made use of,” he stated.
For Ogunade, lack of basic infrastructure is a big drawback in the quest to embark on the full implementation of e-filing. “Not all lawyers are computer savvy and not all lawyers are involved in the current technology. I heard a lawyer a few months ago, who said he uses a non-android phone or smartphone. How can such a lawyer be involved in e-filing?” He asked.
According to him, the lack of constant power supply is a factor. “Do we have a constant power supply? Can we run the system 24 hours a day as it is done in Europe and America? These are issues we must address. You don’t just copy and paste as we are doing in Nigeria. A good foundation must have been laid before we start to carry out the process.
“Another fundamental thing is to amend the rules and practice direction. Has the practice direction been improved upon or amended to incorporate or to take care of e-filing? Don’t forget, the strength of the legal system is in the area of technicalities. We, lawyers, thrive with technicalities and there is no way that you want to be involved in e-filing and fast-tracking that the issue of technicalities would not come in. To that extent, until a legal framework is put in place to address these issues, we are just beating about the bush,” he stated.
According to Ogunade, the legal system thrives on documentation. His words: “We need to exhibit and documents to prove our cases. The legal system is not about storytelling and of course, it would be an aberration for anybody to prove his case on the basis of storytelling without a document. Even if you want to save it on the internet, there will still be a need for the document to be presented at the trial proper. Again, we have a lot of issues to surmount.” He reasoned that a meeting of all stakeholders where those drawbacks would be examined and solutions proffered is the best way to go.
A former Secretary-General of Labour Party (LP), Bar Kayode Ajulo said the invasion of various courts by hoodlums, particularly in Lagos and Delta States during the wave of the #EndSARS protest, where several court processes, exhibits, and other vital documents were allegedly vandalized really calls for a deep reflection and a desperate need for evolution and development in the administration of justice system in Nigeria.
He recalled that the courts in curbing the impact of the pandemic on administration of justice put in place mechanisms to avoid a further clog on the already decongested court system. “Mechanism such as telephone conference calls, virtual hearing through zoom applications were implemented and the court suspended penalty fee for late filing of court processes and permitted service of court processes vide email,” he noted.
Ajulo however, said while hearing and digitalisation of court proceedings may appear novel in Nigeria, the existing frameworks across courts in the country support the conduct of remote hearings and the adoption of technological solutions.
“For instance, the extant rules of the Federal High Court and the National Industrial Court provide for e-filing of court processes. Similarly, the Court of Appeal Rules and the Supreme Court Rules respectively provides for filing of e-copies of briefs of arguments,” he argued, adding that Lagos State is a commercial centre and hub of development has failed to effectively utilize ICT in its judiciary, considering the devastating effect of the invasion of court premises in the state.
He said: “I strongly believe that the lack of effective use of ICT by the court is hinged on lack of drive and initiative. The system of electronic filing is not impossible to implement. For instance, Bornu State High Court is one of the leading courts in Nigeria that has imbibed electronic filing of court processes, and from my findings, the Chief Judge of the state is ICT savvy.”
Ajulo noted that the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) has successfully implemented an automated system, unlike in the past when physical incorporation forms were procured and filled manually and then submitted at the office of the Commission.
“Utilizing ICT for the administration of justice is not as expensive as could be imagined. Numerous features offered by various online platforms such as Zoom and Google cloud will provide significant advantages to courts as they conduct their businesses. For example, many of the available platforms possess an internal recording feature, which will help the court in producing a transcript of proceedings thereafter. This will eliminate the need for judges to write in longhand during proceedings,” he suggested, adding that ICT is the new world order which Nigerian courts should utilise to offer effective administration of justice.
A former chairman of the Ikeja branch of the NBA, Yinka Farounmbi noted that e-filing which has been introduced in Lagos State 10 years ago but has not lived up to the expectations of most stakeholders, particularly legal practitioners. He said: “Considering the number of years it has been introduced, we ought to by now have a perfect system with little or no hitches whatsoever. The system ought to bring us easy ways of filing, but in reality, we encountered more problems than comfort.
“In the first instance, it has not been totally possible for filing to be done without recourse to the Registry of the court. A better situation would have been to be able to file from the comfort of one’s office. Secondly, the system is not working efficiently and effectively. There are a lot of times when one had to wait endlessly for the network to come on.”
He therefore appealed to the authorities for the upgrading of the e-filing system and the efficiency of the programme. According to him, the recent burning of the court by hoodlums should serve as a wake-up call on the judiciary that there is no alternative to an effective e-filing system.
His words: “If the system had been water-proof, we would have easily resorted to it for the retrieval of burnt documents. Even though perfection ought to have been attained earlier, the next best time is now. Like the Chinese would say: the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, the next best time is now. Lack of proper training is another factor militating against hitch-free e-filing. There ought to be organized training for every user for maximum effect.”
He also said there is no mechanism to ascertain that every process filed actually passed the test of e-filing. “After the necessary ritual of payment at the Registry, you are expected to take the documents to the e-filing room, where it would be scanned. Sometimes, the documents are not presented at the e-filing office as long as the original is put in the file. These and more are the hindrances to an efficient e-filing system in our courts,” he pointed out.
A human rights lawyer, Dr. Femi Aborisade said the e-filing system is yet to take off, adding that once the authorities decide to enforce it, it would take off and lawyers would be compelled to use the service.
“If e-filing had been implemented, it might have reduced the losses that occurred during the unfortunate burning down of the courts at Igbosere, Lagos, particularly, if the e-filing system included cloud saving of documents.
Lawyers would have no choice once the authorities are prepared to enforce it. The lesson of the horrible experience of the unfortunate burning of the courts is that court transactions should undergo an electronic transformation,” he advised.
According to him, the government or the political class must first develop the will to address the identified issues militating against judicial automation.