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National Judicial Institute and challenges of judicial automation

By Ameh Ochojila
20 September 2022   |   4:10 am
The judicial arm of the government is a crucial cornerstone of every society. It is the branch of government responsible for resolving conflicts between individuals and groups or between individuals and the government.

Malami

The judicial arm of the government is a crucial cornerstone of every society. It is the branch of government responsible for resolving conflicts between individuals and groups or between individuals and the government.

The judiciary has the responsibility to sustain efficiency, effectiveness, and the timely delivery of justice to all members of the society, regardless their status.

To effectively deliver these responsibilities, knowledge of digital technology and expertise are needed by administrators to enhance greater efficiency and convenience in justice administration by helping to remove some of the limitations in the way they function.

Manual procedures in courts are today being phased out and replaced by digital processes in North America, Europe, and a few Middle East countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, while China is expected to digitalise its courtrooms by 2025.

Africa cannot be an exception, the reason some countries are shaping up. Nigeria as a leading light must also have enough courage to digitalise its processes.

Consequently, efforts are ongoing here and there towards full digitisation of the justice system. This, perhaps, triggered the plan to commence virtual court proceedings in all correctional centres across the federation.

The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) had launched a pilot scheme of the virtual court proceedings in the Kuje Correctional Centre in Abuja.

As part of effort to digitalise the system, the AGF has also worked with development partners to deploy Q-Soft Denovo Court Recording System (CRS) way back in July 2021. Q-Soft Denovo (CRS) is a technology-based audio-visual recording and reporting device aimed at improving the speed and accuracy of court proceedings, thereby increasing the dispensation of justice.

Again, the ministry launched its e-library. This has increased the law resources available to lawyers. Additionally, the Ministry is working to deploy a case management system. This system allows for real-time updates and quick access to case information when needed.

It allows lawyers to access their cases from any location. It allows for case tracking, court schedule and instant transcript that are easier and less time-consuming. Additionally, it allows for expediting the reporting of cases and improves transparency.

All of these are toward the digitalisation of justice administration. While these are ongoing, the tools and facilities cannot move the process without proper training of the human resources that would handle it as well as the judges.

Statutorily, the National Judicial Institute (NJI) is the body responsible for training judicial officers. According to the Act that established it, which is the National Judicial Institute Act (1991 No. 28.), the cardinal objective and function of the Institute in section 2 of the Act stipulates: “For the purposes of subsection (I) of this section, the Institute is hereby empowered to (a) conduct courses for all categories of judicial officers and their supporting staff with a view to expanding and improving their overall knowledge and performance in their different sections of service; (b) provide continuing education for all categories of judicial officers by
undertaking, organising, conducting and facilitating study courses, lectures, seminars, workshops, conferences and other programmes related to judicial education.”

Abdulahi

The NJI administrator, Justice Salisu Garuba Abdullahi had stressed the need to increase awareness of Information Computer Training (ICT) for judicial workers in the country. He stated that the rapid development of ICT and its adoption has helped to improve judicial administration, especially in the area of making the work process of the ever-increasing caseload within the courts lighter.

Abdullahi, stated this while giving a keynote address, at the opening ceremony of the national workshop on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), held in Abuja.

To bridge the gap, The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) has been engaged by the Institute. It now partners NJI to deploy Information Technology (IT) for efficient social justice delivery in Nigeria.

The director-general of NITDA, Mallam Kashifu Abdullahi, pointed out that the deployment of IT in Nigeria’s justice system would help to improve efficiency, especially, in court processes and curb actual or perceived corruption.

He further proposed the training and retraining of judiciary officers to understand IT skills to help them attain maximum capacity and derive value from digital technology.

Abdullahi said the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) does evaluations and takes decisions for humans based on available data and thus, makes it necessary for the judiciary to adopt the use of IT in its work processes.

“We live in a world where technology can be used to profile and make recommendations. It is, therefore, very important to incorporate the use of IT into our judiciary system for enhanced work performance,” he said.

According to Abdullahi, to enjoy the benefits of digital technology in the country, judges need to have an in-depth understanding of digital literacy skills, a responsibility, which falls on the shoulder of the NJI.

He further disclosed that in line with the actualisation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), the full introduction and implementation of digital transformation by the agency for all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) is in top gear.

The NJI has commenced training for some heads of court. The Chief Judge of Lagos State sometimes attended ICT training organised by the Institute for members of the ICT/JIS committee of the Lagos State Judiciary. The programme is in preparation for the Legal e-mail system, which is now effective in most courts.

The legal e-mail system is a newly introduced platform where communication, filing and service of court process, and correspondences among counsels will be done electronically, thereby erasing all manual methods.

The E-mail System, which will serve as a means of communication between judges, court staff and lawyers, as well as between lawyers.

Also, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in conjunction with the NJI holds yearly workshop for Nigerian judges to sensitise and familiarise them with the dynamics of emerging technologies and how they impact the judiciary system.

Former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad during the workshop noted that telecommunication sector had experienced a significant increase in the number of service providers, which made the sector more competitive and prone to abuses.

He stated that some of the risks to consumers had resulted in many disputes and challenges, which invariably ended up in courts and therefore needed competent Judges who were well equipped and abreast with the current trends to handle such cases.

“The growing need for consumer protection in this sector is increasingly becoming complex for courts and the regulator in the converged setting of today, which includes e-commerce, e-payment and e-banking, all creating a major challenge in the sector.

“This forum will further equip judicial officers with the legal and technical skills required for adjusting disputes in this special area of the law and in so doing, keep them abreast with global best practices,” Muhammad said.

However, lawyers regretted that Nigerian Judges are yet to fully embrace the use of ICT in the administration of Justice.

Ogbankwa

Douglas Ogbankwa, a lawyer, said: “I have tried to impress it on the leadership of the Judiciary at all levels to use ICT to simplify the legal system. In this 21st century, Judges and other judicial officials still write in longhand. We should have a full audio visual module that will give a 360 view in voice and visuals on what transpires in court.”

According to him, the matter involving Inibehe Effiong, a lawyer and the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State has yet again brought to the fore, the imperativeness of having an electronic record system that is ascertainable and not open to manipulation, or subject to the whims of anyone.

The lawyer suggested that all courts should have a functional WhatsApp Group, made up of court officials and lawyers to bridge the gap in information dissemination.

“The court of Appeal, Benin Division WhatsApp Group, created by Justice Helen Ogunwumiju, now Justice of the Supreme, is perhaps the most vibrant in Nigeria and it should be used as a model for other Courts in Nigeria to adopt,” the lawyer said.

Ogbankwa stated that NJI has not been proactive in training officials of the Judiciary in that regard. “Officials of the judiciary need not gather physically with all the attendant dangers and expenses. We can embrace tele-conferencing for training of judicial officers,” he suggested.

He charged the body to be more proactive in offering specialised training to judicial officers, so that parties in matters like the EFCC, CBN, NNPC, SEC, among other’s could benefit.

An Abuja-based lawyer, Anone A. Usman, while emphasizing the importance of ICT in justice administration said: “The advantages are glaring. First, proceedings are conducted faster since they are recorded verbatim in digital format. A corollary of this benefit is that records of proceedings are easily accessible, retrievable and acceptable.”

He stressed that if proceedings are recorded in digital format, accurate account of happenings in every court sittings will easily be ascertained.

However, he thinks differently on the performance of NJI. In his view, the Institute is responding very well to the times. “Mindful of the utilitarian value of ICT in the dispensation of justice, training and retraining are constantly being organised for judges on the use of ICT. But of course, a lot more can, and should be done,” he declared.

Usman, however, advised NJI to advocate that aspirants to the bench must be skilled in the use of ICT, instead of only calling for the funding of ICT infrastructure and tools for the use of judges.

He said that judges operate from a mindset of conservatism. “It is no surprise that many don’t mind writing in longhand and with ink. But, this attitude is gradually changing as some judges now come to court with laptops. More judges now cite electronic law reports in their judgments, meaning that they are using these aids.

“Many judges have embraced the aid of stenographers and I believe that in a short time, the use of ICT by judges will become the norm. The NJI must encourage this attitudinal change,” he charged.