The world is presently making efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus and put an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. As many have noted, the world as we knew it may have ended and upon successfully putting the Covid-19 pandemic behind us (which I hope is soonest), we would all have learnt how to do things differently.
The necessity of social distancing has forced many businesses to switch from brick-and-mortar operations to remote work, where they have not entirely suspended operations. In Nigeria, many businesses have adopted a work-from-home policy, leveraging various technology tools such as Microsoft Teams, G-Suite, Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp, among others, to coordinate work collaborations, online meetings and review of documents.
Whilst work goes on in many sectors albeit with possibly reduced intensity in some areas, one system that nearly shut down completely in many parts of Africa is the court system, owing to perennial dithering in adopting modern technology and evolving with the times.
In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, where all courts and their relevant registries have been shut in the nation’s capital, Abuja and its commercial nerve centre, Lagos, lawyers and litigants are forced to suspend any plans to file suits or documents, no matter how time-bound they are under extant law and procedural rules of the courts.
Understandably, an enterprise may only switch to remote work during an emergency where it has previously put the enabling infrastructure in place or can do so at short notice depending on the scale of its operations. Across many jurisdictions in Nigeria, much weather has been made of the introduction of electronic filing but not much has been accomplished in completely eliminating human interface in the process of instituting suits and/ or filing documents to be relied upon during court proceedings. Yet, this is only a rudimentary part of what is required.
In the recent past, Nigeria’s National Judicial Council launched a campaign to design case management software for courts and a legal mail for all lawyers in Nigeria. Accordingly, all lawyers filing matters before the Supreme Court were required to register for Legal Mail and include their email addresses in the court processes, with the understanding that the Supreme Court would subsequently serve court processes solely via electronic means (using Legal Mail). The initiative was well applauded and was expected to signal the beginning of new things but not much has happened since then.
For many lawyers who rely on appearance fees to keep body and soul together, the closure of the courts occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic creates another emergency, of a financial kind as a result of the lost opportunity to earn an income, and the longer the courts remain closed, the more precarious the situation becomes.
I was recently invited to speak on a panel on the ‘Fading Attraction for Litigation Practice in Nigeria’ at a seminar on Trends in Modern Law Practice, organised by the Nigerian Bar Association – Section on Legal Practice and one of the many issues discussed was the need to speed up the process of getting disputes in and out of the court system. Other sources of irritation include failure of Registry officials to inform counsel of the unavailability of a presiding judge to conduct proceedings, and extortion by Registry officials who deliberately delay the process of filing documents until they are financially induced.
The challenges cited above can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, with a determined approach in adopting and integrating online dispute resolution mechanisms into the existing brick and mortar system. Time lost waiting in cramped courts for judges that sometimes do not show up can be salvaged through case scheduling applications for a start and gradually introduce the use of technology for the determination of certain disputes for which documentary evidence suffice. Where necessary, Counsel may be invited to submit recorded submissions on specific issues.
I understand that there are budgetary constraints that may limit the introduction of technology in managing our dispute resolution system but I also wager that needed savings can be made by eliminating non-essential expenditure while engaging with all relevant stakeholders to ensure increased budgetary allocations to the judiciary. The plain truth however, is that the first step is to see the need to embrace the use of technology in the judiciary not as a fancy show to herald new appointments but as a necessary tool for speed and access to justice.
In an interview with the Africa Law and Tech Network in December 2019, I argued that “the rapid adoption of technology in various facets of life will no doubt necessitate the use of online dispute resolution systems in the foreseeable future. We have for instance seen the conscious integration of robust internal dispute resolution algorithms into many technology platforms and mobile applications. With time, such models will extend to the resolution of disputes without having a significant interface with the traditional court system as we know it today. Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain technology hold some promise for the continent in this regard.”
I maintain that African countries need to begin to be more deliberate about investing in legal technology. If the fear before now was that technology was going to take away jobs, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shown us that in an unusual situation, technology might be the only reason you may still be able to deliver on your tasks and earn a living. If we had a robust online dispute resolution system across Nigeria and other parts of Africa, we just might have been able to avoid a complete loss of income for many litigation lawyers now unable to practice their vocation.
The above represent my preliminary thoughts on the issue and I look forward to an ongoing conversation on the subject. Do feel free to share your observations and reactions with me just as you share this post. You can also read my full interview with the Africa Law & Tech Network here.
April 2, 2020