+2349090008231, +2348121251967

With Practice Directions, Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings May Not Be Necessary

05th June, 2020 at 7:00am


Recently, there have been increasing concerns as to the constitutionality of the current practice in some Nigerian courts embracing virtual hearing of cases, as these cases might be reversed or set-aside by the Supreme Court of Nigeria on the grounds that such hearings did not meet the constitutional requirement to determine these cases.

The ongoing concerns are as a result of the impact of the novel coronavirus which has been felt in almost every sector across the world, including the Nigerian Judiciary System.  In a bid to curb the spread of the virus and maintain social distancing in the Nigerian judiciary, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria, Abubakar Malami, SAN, and the National Judicial Council have both announced separate plans for Nigerian courts to resort to virtual proceedings during and after the covid-19 pandemic.  In addition to that, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Dr. Justice I.T Muhammad, on March 23, 2020, directed all courts in Nigeria to suspend sittings for an initial period of two weeks at the first instance, and additional two weeks, except in matters that are urgent, essential or time-bound.

Following the directives of the Attorney General and the Chief Justice, some states such as Lagos State signed the "Lagos State Judiciary Remote Hearing of Cases (COVID-19 Pandemic Period) Practice Direction" (hereinafter referred to as the 'Practice Direction'), which came into effect on May 4, 2020.  The essence of the Practice Direction is to ensure the hearing and determination of urgent and time-bound cases through digital platforms such as Zoom, Skype or any other video and audio conferencing platform that may be approved by the Court.  It is expected that, other State judiciaries will adopt the Lagos model to hear cases virtually.  In Borno State, a Judge delivered a judgment in a criminal matter through video conference sitting, where it was recorded as its first virtual court sitting.  Also, Ekiti State judiciary has already made arrangements to adopt virtual hearing of cases, and more states including FCT are considering to do same.

It is therefore now a question of, "when virtual court proceeding becomes a norm across Nigeria, will there be a constitutional backing to such practice?"  In view of this, there are lots of agitations by some legal pundits that there must be an amendment of the Constitution to accommodate virtual or remote hearings before same can be conducted in Nigeria.  As a result of this, a Bill was recently introduced at the Nigerian Senate for an amendment of the Constitution to make provision for virtual hearings.  It has become pertinent to consider if truly an amendment of the Nigerian Constitution is required.

However, my position is that pending its implementation, I am of the view that, an amendment of the Constitution for virtual hearing may not be necessary and there is nothing unconstitutional about it, so long as the practice procedure is amended to accommodate this present reality.

The Position of 1999 Constitution on Virtual Hearing for Public Trial

SECTION 36 (3) OF THE 1999 CONSTITUTION[4] provides that:

"The proceedings of a court or the proceedings of any tribunal relating to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) shall be held in public"

SECTION 36 (4) further provides that:

�Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a court or tribunal:

Provided that -

�(a) a court or such a tribunal may exclude from its proceedings persons other than the parties thereto or their legal practitioners in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, the welfare of persons who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the protection of the private lives of the parties or to such extent as it may consider necessary by reason of special circumstances in which publicity would be contrary to the interests of justice;

(b) if in any proceedings before a court or such a tribunal, a Minister of the Government of the Federation or a commissioner of the government of a State satisfies the court or tribunal that it would not be in the public interest for any matter to be publicly disclosed, the court or tribunal shall make arrangements for evidence relating to that matter to be heard in private and shall take such other action as may be necessary or expedient to prevent the disclosure of the matter.�

However, going by the provisions of the 1999 constitution mentioned above, the court proceedings shall be held in public, in other words, in a public place. What is public place?  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Law, public place means, "a place to which the public has access." Virtual court sitting is publicly accessible and therefore can be referred to as one of the public places.  John Dewey also defined public as, "a group of people who, in facing a similar problem, recognize it and organize themselves to address it." The meaning of the word "public" according to the constitution does not denote court alone.  Assuming, but not conceding that the constitution suggests public place to mean court, it does not however refer to the court building as some people may think.  Now, what constitute a court?  According to the Cambridge Law Dictionary, "The court is the judge or judges who are in charge of the way a legal case happens and sometimes make decisions about it.  It is also the place where trials and other legal cases happen."

Therefore, it is very clear that going by these meanings of the public, courts and constitutional provision, the present circumstances necessitate the need for the Chief Justice and Chief Judge of the High courts to amend rules of procedure and provide a practice direction that would enable court proceedings to hold in this pandemic era via digital platforms.  Hence, there may not be any need for constitutional amendments.

Furthermore, before the coronavirus pandemic, the rules of procedure and practice directions issued by heads of courts have provided for e-filing and e-service of processes and consequently made it mandatory for counsel to furnish the courts with their emails and telephone numbers. Thus, hearing notices are served on lawyers and parties via emails or WhatsApp.  This method of service of process got its legal backing from the case of C.M. & E.S Ltd V. Pazan Services Nig Ltd, where the Supreme Court (per Okoro JSC) held that,

"In the instant appeal, there is evidence that a text message was sent by the registry of the Court to the GSM numbers provided by counsel to both parties informing them that the matter had been adjourned to 15th March, 2016. I hold the view that at this age of prevalence of information technology, the service of hearing notice through text message by the registrar of Court is good and sufficient."

Similarly, on a more detailed level, section 232 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act provides that, "a trial for the offences referred to in subsection (4) of this section may not, where the court so determines, be held in an open court."

The provision shall apply to offences under the Terrorism (Prevention) Amendment Act 2013; Economic and Financial Crimes Act 2004; Trafficking in Persons and related Offences Act 2005 and any other offence in respect of which the National Assembly permits the use of such protective measures or as the Judge may consider appropriate in the circumstances

His Lordship Honourable Justice Kanyip, in his remark at a webinar session organized by Omaplex Law Firm stated that, "the restrictive interpretation of 'public' as contained in Section 36 of the 1999 constitution is unnecessary.  Public has been defined as access to judicial proceedings, so once the public is given access via codes for virtual hearing, whether the public uses the access or not is immaterial.  But that access given via codes for virtual hearing, automatically complies with hearing in public."  

Prof. A. Amucheazi SAN also said that, "the constitution cannot be amended every time we need to effect an urgent change, because the process in itself takes a lot of time to complete.  The virtual hearing needs to be sanctioned by our courts, because the constitution had given heads of courts the power to make practice directions.  He concluded by saying the constitution is made for us and not the other way round."

In fact, the Section 36 (3) cited by those stating the unconstitutionality of using teleconferencing and video-conferencing tools, especially for essential cases at this time, must be read alongside Section 36 (1) which seeks to ensure fair hearing for persons within a reasonable time.  It must not be interpreted in isolation.  Therefore, we cannot claim to protect the rights to fair hearing within a reasonable time as provided in Section 36 (1) during the COVID-19 pandemic, without embracing remote hearing.  We should also know that there is nowhere in the Nigerian constitution where 'public' is defined as 'physical' in respect to court's building. 

The Oxford dictionary rightly defines the word public "as any place where people can access to." This includes where virtual proceedings can be conducted and accessed by the public.  If we take this literally, does using video conferencing for lawyers to present their cases, prevent proceedings from holding in any open and accessible place? The answer to this, is No.  To argue otherwise is to limit our court to a building only, rather than 'a place' and 'a service' � the service of justice to all.

We should also not lose sight to accommodate those who have developed life interactions with other members of the society by way of technology.  This is now the direction the world is moving to and we must embrace the realities. Recently, in England and Wales, more than 80 per cent of the country's court and tribunal caseload was handled remotely, without reported mishap.  The truth is that, these are not amongst the most complex cases we have had.  But they form the bulk of the daily work of justice systems.

The way videoconferencing tools work is such that they can always be made available for "open view".  For example, we hold seminars or workshop on Zoom, Microsoft Team, and participants can watch online or participate if allowed.  The only big challenge here is the urgent need to train lawyers, judges, and judicial officials in the use of technology, as well the need for infrastructure to support remote sittings.  If judges decide to interpret Section 36 (3) literally to mean sitting in court, then the judges can sit in Court and should allow electronic filling of cases and lawyers to argue via video conferencing.

Having considered the concerns and the contentions of some lawyers and judges, I am of the view that the proponents of this contention that "Public" means open Court as to suggest that remote hearings have been excluded, have adopted a very narrow and restrictive definition of "Public" which in the current circumstances should not be allowed to hold sway.  To start with, the cases relied on by those proponents to canvass their arguments such as Menakaya v Menakaya (2001) dealt only with the issue of whether hearings conducted in chambers to which members of the public do not have access constitute "public" as provided in the Constitution and those decisions where solely predicated on the circumstances presented. It is the settled position of the law that a case can only be good precedent in another case where the facts are similar. Thus in the case of Nwabueze v The People of Lagos State (2018), it was held that:

"It is therefore settled that a Court lower in the judicial ladder is bound by its own or the ratio decidendi of a higher Court in an earlier case, if the issues of fact and the legislation the Court considers subsequently are same or similar."

A commendable approach to view hearing conducted in public can be found in the dictum of per Muhammad JCA in the case of Kosebinu & Ors v Alimi (2005) where after holding that the question of whether a place constitutes public is a question of fact held that: "It is my firm and considered view that a place qualifies under S.36 (3) of the 1999 Constitution to be called 'public' if it is out rightly accessible and not so accessible on the basis of the 'permission' or 'consent' of the Judge."

As a result, where the general members of the public can have access to participate in a proceeding then it meets the requirements of public hearing.  This must have been borne in mind by the National Judicial Council (NJC) when in setting out the policy of the Nigerian judiciary and guidelines as it relates to virtual court sittings specified that: "Heads of courts shall ensure that there is live streaming of all virtual court proceedings through a publicized Uniform Resource Locator ('url' or 'web address') or the court's or any other social media channel so that members of the public can observe the proceedings.  This qualifies as hearing in Public."

Practice Directions Regulating Virtual Court Proceedings Can Be Constitutionally Acceptable.

The question, whether practice directions provided by heads of court for virtual court proceeding would be constitutional is answered in affirmation. Below are my reasons.

Some judges have raised a worrisome concern on whether their decisions, rulings would be accepted by the Apex court if allowed to hold virtual court hearings.  In the past, we had few number of cases where such decisions of High Courts were overturned by the Supreme Court for not being held in public places.  For instance, the Supreme Court, in the case of Edibo v The State[27] set aside the conviction and sentence of the appellant and others who were charged with culpable homicide punishable by death on the ground that it was unconstitutional for the trial judge to have taken their pleas in his chambers.  The Supreme Court held that the judge's chambers were not a public place.  The question many judges are asking is, will a court hearing held through Zoom or Skype be considered to have been held in a public place? Some judges have answered in the negative and cited the tendency of the apex court to be hash and rigid in interpreting the constitution.

However, it is important to note that, not all judges are actually against adoption of virtual hearing without constitutional amendment.  They want to first, hold a conversation on whether certain provisions of the constitution should be amended to accommodate these gadgets.  Those who want it amended see it as a waste of resources for a case to be decided using these means only for the Supreme Court to set aside the judgement and order a fresh trial.  They made reference to the Nigeria-Arab Bank Limited v Barri Engineering Nig. Ltd. (1995), where the trial judge sat in his chamber to deliver judgment in his chamber, the Supreme Court set aside the judgement, holding that the delivery of the judgement in the judge's chamber was an irregularity, which bordered on the legality of the whole proceedings.

Consequently, the Federal High Court (FHC) of Nigeria has however, authorized judges to adopt virtual proceedings for court cases in all its judicial divisions.  The Chief Judge (CJ) Justice John Tsoho gave the direction in the new 2020 Practice Directions for the COVID-19 Period. This came into effect on the 18th May 2020.

There were 36 Divisions of the court as at last July 2019 with 82 judges to hear over 200,000 pending cases.  While giving the direction, the CJ introduced the following;

i.    �That the virtual proceedings can be either by Zoom, Skype or any other audio-visual platform approved by the Court, but proceedings can only be held virtually with the consent of the parties and their counsels.
ii.    That under the new rules, FHC judges cannot hear more than nine cases in a day.

iii.    Where parties and counsel agree to virtual proceedings in a case, he directed them to liaise with the court's Registrar to schedule the hearings.
iv.    Cases for virtual proceedings shall then be stated on the Cause List, posted on the FHC website and communicated to counsel and parties, either by e-mail or any other electronic means.
v.    The Judge and counsel in such proceedings must also be robed.
vi.    Service of court processes and hearing notices may be effected by e-mails, WhatsApp or as may be directed by the Court, and shall be deemed as good service.
vii.    The print out of same shall be sufficient proof of service.
viii.    Face Masks must be properly worn by everyone within the court premises to cover their mouths and noses at all times
ix.    Every person within the premises of the court and inside the court room shall observe the requirement of social and physical distancing of not less than 2 meters (6 feet) apart from each other,
x.    At any given time, there shall not be a congregation of more than ten (10) within the Court premises, except for purposes of court sittings
xi.    There shall not be more than twenty (20) persons inside the court room including the court staff and counsel at court sittings.�

It is really imperative that we give a trial to these new practice directions to see how we can leverage on the trending technologies while in this pandemic.  Amending a constitution for an uncertain situation we do not know how long it would last, and if other possible peculiar pandemics may also occur in the future, is not necessary.  The amendment of the Nigerian constitution is very cumbersome and it would not be safe to begin to amend the constitution for every situation that would require only procedural amendment.  Especially, when the Heads of Courts have been empowered by the Constitution to make practice directions that can accommodate any unforeseeable occurrences such as this COVID-19 pandemic.

More so, it may not be necessary to entrench virtual court sitting in the 1999 Constitution at this stage without first giving it trial.  One must trade with caution to avoid regret in the future.  Calling for caution, Mr. Dayo Akinlaja (SAN) said, "as much as it is desirable for us to leverage technology in judicial proceedings, it may be necessary for us to make haste slowly in that regard.  I would rather that we have got it fully mastered and honed to perfection before we go the whole hog of entrenching it into the Constitution."

The 1999 Constitution has empowered the Nigerian judiciary with independent powers to make practice direction for ease of practice and to accommodate any urgent situations that may not require resorting to constitutional amendments at all time.  It is also not surprising that there are no provisions in the Constitution on how the Executive Arm of Government is to hold its meetings (i.e Federal Executive Council Meetings). Neither are there any provisions in the Constitution as to how the Senate or the House of Representatives would hold parliamentary sessions.  Such issues have been easily dealt with by the rules set up by the Executive and the legislative houses. In fact, the Federal Executive Council held its meeting virtually with no rule as to requirement of constitutional amendment during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Why then should there be a Constitutional amendment specifying how the judiciary should hold court sessions after the Constitution has specified their powers and jurisdiction?

Furthermore, virtual or remote court sittings have to do with how the Court conducts its business and/or to carry out its judicial function and therefore, it is a matter of procedure.  Recognizing that the respective Courts created in the Constitution will need to have its set rules on how court proceedings will be conducted, provisions are made in sections 236, 248, 254, 259, 264, 269, 274, 279 and 284 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as Amended) for the various Heads of Court to make rules on practice and procedure in their respective courts.  Why then should we amend the Constitution again and infuse procedural issues into same?

We must also know that there is no provision in the Constitution prescribing remote hearing.  In fact, remote hearing being a matter of procedure is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.  The principle of law has remained inviolate to the effect that whatever is not expressly prohibited is permitted.  See the case of Theophilus v FRN (2012)[36] where it was held that:

�The basic canon of interpretation or construction of statutory provisions remains that what is not expressly prohibited by a statute is impliedly permitted � It is not within the court's interpretative jurisdiction or powers to construe a statute to mean what it does not mean, nor to construe it not to mean what it means.�

Consequently, in the context of our extant 1999 Constitution (as Amended), remote hearing has not been prohibited and is therefore impliedly permitted subject to appropriate rules of procedure as the Heads of Court have been guided to make in the NJC Guideline.


An attempt to legislate on remote, virtual hearing may be an attempt to legislate innovation.  We must thread with caution because innovation is not static.  One should try technology first and see how best it can be leveraged on.  This will prepare everyone for other possible future pandemic occurrences as the world changes.  Even if the National Assembly still seeks to amend the court procedure, they should focus on legislating for a more permanent technological upgrade to be set out by a more elaborate process.  They should also focus on legislation that does not merely integrate technology into the court process, but transforms the judicial process.

The National Assembly should also give attention to and devote their time to other pressing issues affecting the nation such as giving legislative arm support in the fight against the spread of corona virus and boosting the economy of post Covid-19 as opposed to amending the Constitution.  What is required is progressive thinking and interpretation of those existing provisions in the light and context of present day realities. The 1999 Constitution which empowered our judiciary with independent powers to make practice directions for ease of practice, also empowered them to give directives that would accommodate any urgent situations that do not necessarily require resorting to constitutional amendments. 

Therefore, it is deemed unnecessary at this stage in this time of Covid-19 pandemic to amend the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Chief Awomolo SAN; "There is a Need for Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Court Hearing." Cited in https://dnllegal and Accessed 20th May 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN, "Do We Need Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings in Nigeria?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.
Section 36 (3) of the 1999 Constitution as Amended.
Ibid, Section 36 (4) (a) & (b).
Oxford Dictionary of Law (2009) 7th Edition
John Dewey defined (Dewey 1927)
Cambridge Law Dictionary
Oamen Eromosele; "Virtual Proceeding is Legal, Constitutional, by Falana." Cited in   Published 19th of February, 2020. Accessed 19th May 2020.
C.M. & E.S LTD v. PAZAN SERVICES NIG LTD (2020) 1 NWLR (Pt 1704) 70, pg 95
Section 232 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015        
Oamen Eromosele; "Virtual Proceeding is Legal, Constitutional, by Falana." Cited in>  Published 19th of February, 2020. Accessed 19th May 2020.
His Lordship Hon. Justice Kanyip: "Bench & Bar Interactions on the National Industrial Court of Nigeria Practice Directions and Guidelines for Court Sittings 2020." A webinar held on the 21st day of May, 2020.
Prof. A. Amucheazi SAN; "Bench & Bar Interactions on the National Industrial Court of Nigeria Practice Directions and Guidelines for Court Sittings 2020." A webinar held on the 21st day of May, 2020.
[16] Timi Olagunji, "Why Remote, Virtual Court Hearings in Nigeria are Constitutional?" Timi Olagunji; "Why Remote, Virtual Court Hearings in Nigeria are Constitutional?" Cited in> Accessed 19th May 2020.
[17] Oxford Dictionary of Law (2009) 7th Edition.
Timi Olagunji, "Why Remote, Virtual Court Hearings in Nigeria are Constitutional?" Timi Olagunji; "Why Remote, Virtual Court Hearings in Nigeria are Constitutional?" Cited in> Accessed 19th May 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Is a Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearing Really required?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 19th May 2020.
Menakaya v Menakaya (2001) 43 WRN 138, Oviasu v Dr. Oviasu & Anor (1973) 1 ALL NLR 730.
Nwabueze v The People of Lagos State (2018) LPELR-44113(SC).
Kosebinu & Ors v Alimi (2005) LPELR-11442(CA)
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Do We Need Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings in Nigeria?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Is a Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Court Hearing Really Required?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020.  Accessed on the 19th May 2020.
Edibo v. the State (2007) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1051) p. 306
Tobi Soniyi; "Judges Oppose Virtual Court Sitting, Say it is Unconstitutional" Cited Published 17th May, 2020. Accessed on the 17th May 2020.
Nigeria-Arab Bank Limited v. Barri Engineering Nig. Ltd. (1995) 8 NWLR (Pt. 413) 257
Tobi Soniyi; "Judges Oppose Virtual Court Sitting, Say it is Unconstitutional" Cited> Published 17th May, 2020. Accessed on the 17th May 2020.
Unini Chioma; "Covid-19: Federal High Court Issues Practice Directions, Guidelines' Adopts Virtual Court." Cited in  Published 18th May 2020. Accessed 19th of May, 2020.
Unini Chioma; Covid-19: Federal High Court Issues Practice Directions, Guidelines' Adopts Virtual Court." Cited in> Published 18th May 2020. Accessed 19th of May, 2020.  
Joseph Onyekwere and Bridget Chinedu Onochie; "Lawyers differ on practicability of virtual court." Cited in>  Published on the 17th of May, 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Is a Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Court Hearing Really Required?" Cited in Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Do We Need Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings in Nigeria?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.
Theophilus v FRN (2012) LPELR-9846 (CA) 
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Do We Need Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings in Nigeria?" Cited in Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.
Timi Olagunji; "Why Remote, Virtual Court Hearings in Nigeria are Constitutional?" Cited in  Accessed 19th May 2020.
Kemi Pinhiero SAN; "Do We Need Constitutional Amendment for Virtual Hearings in Nigeria?" Cited in> Published 18th of May, 2020. Accessed on the 18th May 2020.