The Supreme Court of Nigeria on Tuesday laid to rest the arguments about the constitutionality of virtual court sittings in the country.
The apex court decided that such virtual court sittings could not be said to be unconstitutional.
It was a full panel of the court (comprising of seven Justices) presided by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour that declined to to hold that virtual proceedings are unconstitutional as prayed by the attorney-general of Ekiti State, Olawale Fapohunda, against the attorney-general of the federation regarding the legality of virtual court sittings.
Mr Fapohunda had asked the court to determine whether the directive issued by the AGF to the heads of courts at federal and state levels, as it relates to the conduct of virtual proceedings in court, is not a violation of the federalism provisions of the 1999 Constitution.
He also asked the apex court to determine if the directive issued in line with the National Judicial Council is not a violation of the constitutional provisions on fair hearing as it relates to the conduct of criminal trials in public.
He also asked the court to set aside or strike down directives to the extent that they purport to be binding on the Ekiti State High Court for being inconsistent with the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Apart from the Attorney General of the Federation, the Attorneys General of Lagos and Ogun States who have implemented virtual court proceedings were also listed as second and third defendants.
Ekiti State further asked that the Supreme Court determines whether the AGF’s guidelines are not a derogation from the legislative, executive and judicial law-making, law execution and adjudicatory rules making powers exclusively vested in states of the federation in respect of states courts, by virtue of Sections 1(3), 4(6), 5(2), 6(2), 272 and 272 and 274 of the Constitution.
The plaintiff is also asking the apex court to decide whether Lagos and Ogun states, having adopted virtual court hearings pursuant to the lockdown, the three arms of Government in Ekiti State are bound to conduct their legislative, executive and judicial functions pertaining to adjudication in state courts in compliance with the directive upon which the National Judicial Council formulated the provisions of Articles E(1) to E(13) of its Guidelines (issued on May 7, 2020).
The court emphatically said virtual court sittings are presumed to be valid, adding that that the Chief Judges of states that have practice directions to provide for virtual sitting when convenient should enforce the directive.
Members of the panel dismissed the fear said to be entertained by many judges as to the constitutionality of remote hearings in the country.
The panel described the suit as academic and speculative as it did not disclose how virtual proceedings had injured the interest or right of anyone, prompting the Fapohunda to therefore withdraw the case.
Lagos State, which also filed a suit challenging the power of the National Assembly to amend section 274 of the Constitution to include virtual proceedings, also withdrew.
In striking out the suit, Justice Rhodes-Vivour held that “as of today, virtual sitting is not unconstitutional.”