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Biggest judicial revolution as NJC berths e-court
The Nigerian judiciary is set for a revolution that may change its face forever. LANRE ADEWOLE of our Judiciary Desk projects into the reachable mileage and achievable height of the all-inclusive policy.
Are you a litigant with your case being heard hundreds of kilometres from where your star-witness is and lacking in resources to bring him down to the court? Are you a lawyer already frustrated with the usual nepotism that has come to characterise the procedure and process of filing documents in court registries especially when one refuses to play the ball of gratification that is now a norm among court staffers? Have you been a victim of inexplicable loss of case-file at court registries after spending days and valuable man-hour to complete the ritual of mere filing of processes? Have you been sickened severally due to encounters with court bailiffs that play god on the issue of service of processes? Is checking ordinary cause-list for the date of your case always digging a hole in your pocket because you have to part with “something” before it is shown to you or wasting several hours because the official in charge is permanently not available? The National Judicial Council (NJC) says it is putting an end to all these in the biggest ever revolution that is hitting the nation’s judiciary, simply known as e-court, in which the entire judicial process of disposing of, a case, starting from the day of filing to the judgement day, is now electrically-channelled, with all the excruciatingly slow manual processes coupled with obvious man-made impediments are now replaced by jet-speed electronically-powered technology, thereby bringing the Nigerian judicial system at par with most advanced world judiciaries.
Launching the policy document of the concept at the headquarters of the NJC was Justice Dahiru Musdapher’s last assignment outside of the court as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, signalling the commencement of the project that could change the face of the nation’s judiciary forever if well-implemented.
The 10-man Judicial Information Technology Policy Committee (JITPO-COM) headed by the Chief Judge of Borno State, Justice Kashim Zannah was very clear in highlighting the desired objectives of the project, while asking the NJC to be the coordinating authority of the ICT revolution as the “Data Centre” connecting all the courts in the land, from Ibusa to Ehin-Igbeti and from Gembu to Okrika.
Determined to end the delay arising from inability to produce witnesses as at when due, video-conferencing is being primed for all the courts in the land, with the designers of the project saying “Video-conferencing can be used to connect people in different physical locations especially for critical meetings and discussions. Video-conferencing systems can also be used to enable testifying witnesses “appear” in court without having to travel to the courtroom. Expert witnesses, prisoners and various other witnesses can provide the same testimonies from remote locations. From the prison, prisoners will see and hear everything that takes place in the courtroom and will be able to answer questions posed to them by judges and lawyers.
“Video-conferencing in the court system offers significant cost savings and improved security by reducing the need for high-security prisoner transport. The entire courtroom experience will be made shorter, safer and more cost-effective”.
On the benefits of the planned filing of cases online, the policy-makers stated that “This easy-to-use system will allow lawyers to file documents directly with the courts over the Internet and allows courts to file, store and manage their case files in an easy-to-access, transparent way. This service will be charged through the internet banking system, for payment of case filing. The e-filing system uses standard computer hardware, an internet connection and a browser, and accepts documents in Portable Document Format (PDF)”.
On the judiciary operators’ desire to reduce the laborious paper documents to the barest minimum, Electronic Document Management System (EDMS) was suggested as a panacea to the time-consuming and difficult-to keep and-retrieve paper documents, while listing the benefits to include; multiple users will have access to the same electronic copy of court case and court record documents, the search and retrieval of all records and associated files and documents are simplified, man-hours required for storage and retrieval of scanned and indexed documents is far less, coupled with the fact that electronic documents are easier to secure from alterations and damage”.
“A case management system is an enterprise application developed specifically to improve service efficiency in handling cases in court. This should be accessible to authorised Judges and authorised court staff, while other pre-determined aspects of the system should be accessible to all parties to cases and the general public at large, for instance, the cause list”.
Perhaps the biggest worry for parties and counsel in cases today in various courts across the land is the issue of case-file loss which has been severally attributed to unethical sharp practices which the coming IT revolution is set to tackle. Those behind the project noted that “Bar Code and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) File Tracking Software System” are the answer to the file-tracking problem, because they “allow for total records management systems on both an enterprise and local level”. They further added that “File Tracking Software Systems will save filing labour, file searching time, prevent files from disappearing, keep items secure from authorised perusal, automate file creation, allow for searching and reserving checked out items, automated on demand label printing, archiving from automated retention schedules, set up trailing document checklists, file disposal and many more features which all help to reduce loss and costs”.
Since the project was conceived to assist the entire gamut of the nation’s justice system, JITPO-COM did not focus only on the process of getting to the courtroom, but everything that has to do with judicial process. It highlighted its mission by saying that “the system should automate and track all aspects of a case life cycle from initial filing through to disposition and appeal”.
This resolve was made manifest by paying attention to even the minute details in its recommendations for e-court systems. Quoting the committee, “The e-courtroom system is an evidence presentation tool that utilizes a dedicated computer, electronic wall display, data monitors, DVD/CVR, document presenter, printer and integrated audio system. Appropriate use of technology to display or play evidentiary exhibits or illustrative aids changes the dynamics in a courtroom in productive and helpful ways.
“Courtroom technology is a means of putting evidence before everyone in the courtroom—the judge, the lawyers, the courtroom support staff and the public simultaneously. The e-court allows counsel to switch from displaying exhibits, real-time transcripts, video recordings or multimedia presentations with the push of a button.
“Some of the advanced technology which may be integrated into the courtroom includes; a document camera that can be used to display exhibits such as documents or medium-sized three-dimensional objects; VGA connections to display multi-media presentations or images from a portable computer; documents, images, etc. Can be displayed on any monitor in the courtroom; a colour video printer that can then produce a colour print out of any image displayed through the e-court system”.
For a policy document that saw the committee traversing continents, spending almost seven months, Musdapher could not but be full of praises for its comprehensiveness, saying “it is my hope that this Policy Document will be taken into account prior to the implementation of any information technology project in the judiciary as many of the issues that will require due consideration have been adequately captured”.
The Bar appears to be waiting for the Bench all along in coming on-board the new method of justice delivery, considering the level of IT-compliance among lawyers, with the aspiring ones still in school already co-opted through the premium now placed on computer studies as a compulsory elective course for Law undergraduates and now making Mathematics, a condition-precedent for admission of Law students.
The challenge for cohesion in the IT revolution is now that of Musdapher’s successor-in-office, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar as all eyes would be on her to provide leadership in the quest for the nation’s judiciary for a quantum leap into modernity.