Virtual court sitting is constitutional —Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of Nigeria has declared that holding virtual sitting by courts in the country is not unconstitutional if held in accordance with directions stipulated by heads of courts.
A seven-man panel of the apex court led by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour held that virtual court sittings are presumed to be valid.
The panel also held that as long as it has not been declared unconstitutional by the court it cannot be adjudged illegal prima facie.
The judges made the comments during the hearing of separate suits filed by the Lagos State Attorney-General, Moyosore Onigbanjo (SAN), and his Ekiti State counterpart, Olawale Fapohunda.
The Attorneys-General has sought the resolution of the court on the legality of virtual court.
The virtual court system was adopted at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the country and the world at large.
Members of the Supreme Court panel allayed the fear entertained by many judges as to the constitutionality of remote hearings in the country.
They maintained that the Chief Judges of the states that had issued practice direction to provide for virtual sitting had the capacity to enforce it.
The panel slammed both the Lagos and Ekiti AGs, saying their suits are speculative as they did not disclose how virtual court can harm anyone’s interest or right.
Members of the apex court panel described the suits as academic and speculative.
In striking out the suit, Justice Rhodes-Vivour, who led the seven-man panel said:
“Just let us wait for the National Assembly whether what they will come up with go against the practice direction issued by Chief Judges of the states and the National Judicial Council (NJC) on virtual sitting.”
He said that it is after the National Assembly has passed its pending Bill seeking to include virtual sitting in the Constitution can anybody challenge its constitutionality or otherwise.
Then it will be determined whether such enactment violates the powers of heads of courts to regulate proceedings.
“As at now, virtual siting is not unconstitutional. Honourable Attorney General (referring to Onigbajo), go and tell your Chief Judge to ask the judges to continue to sit virtually if it s convenient for them,” he noted.
Another member of the panel, Justice Dattijo Mohammed said there is not cause of action yet, because no one has claimed that his right has been breached.
“Somebody’s right must be breached by what the National Assembly is able to come up with before you can come to court, ” Justice Mohammed said.
Justice Amina Augie (another member of the panel): “It is a fundamental law, we do not act on speculation. What you are doing now is speculative.”
Another member, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola said: “Why don’t you wait for the National Assembly to come up with what they are doing, then you can come and challenge it if you are not comfortable.
“You have a choice either to ask that your matter be adjourned sine die until after the National Assembly passes its law or you withdraw your case.”
On his part, Justice Ejembi Eko said the suits are premature and speculative.
Justice Eko said by virtue of the provision of Section 168(1) of the Evidence Act, the practice directions by courts heads on virtual proceedings enjoy the presumption of regularity until they set aside.
“We cannot say, at this stage, whether or not virtual sitting is constitutional,” Eko said.
The seven-man panel then struck out the cases.
Both Onigbanjo (SAN) of Lagos and Fapohunda of Ekiti thereafter withdrew the suits.
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