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Rivers state court automation, bold steps in judicial reform

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Something remarkable is taking place in the Nigerian Judicial landscape as Rivers State Judiciary celebrates one year anniversary of applying e-filing and automating its courts.

The anniversary ceremonies commenced on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, with a Press Conference and continue till the end of March when award plaques would be presented to the deserving staff of the Judiciary, who have become Champions of the Rivers State Court Management Information System (RivCoMis) platform. In between, precisely on March 22, a webinar titled “RivCoMis: How Far, So Far” was held. The Rivers Judiciary seems to have broken the glass ceiling and succeeded in implementing end-to-end automation, thereby setting the pace for other courts to emulate.

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A successful ICT reform implementation starts with a clear vision and purpose. Such clarity of purpose is evident in most of the utterances of the Chief Judge of Rivers State. In a statement on March 9, 2021, the Chief Judge, Hon. Justice I.A. Iyayi-Lamikanra remarked that “good justice systems are independent, transparent, accountable and efficient. Citizens depend on the judicial arm of government for key decisions that affect their daily lives and the society they live in. A good justice system is an inalienable right of the citizen.”

Again, judicial ICT reform implementation requires an assessment of the need that exists and the deployment of appropriate methodology and scope of the solution. This obviously is what the Chief Judge meant when she said the following: “In order to initiate lasting reforms in the justice sector and to replace the archaic procedures and outmoded administrative and management systems, information, and communications technology (ICT) solutions have been deployed holistically at the Rivers State Judiciary to provide end-to-end automation of the cash flow system.”

Of course, the holistic implementation was preceded by a process improvement study to review the existing ‘as is’ or status quo processes and ways of doing court business. This was followed by the streamlining and optimizing of those processes to achieve better speed and quality of justice delivery. This approach is the strategy often employed in the private sector to achieve speed and efficiency, for example in industries like banking, health care, insurance, etc. The C.J alluded to the above when she made the following remarks in her press release: “I believe that information and communications technology have brought a turning point in the history of human civilization. It has brought about numerous changes and innovations in all fields of human activity. It has resulted in enhanced efficiency, productivity, and quality of output in every walk of life. And the Justice sector is not an exception.

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“The determination by the Rivers judiciary to involve all stakeholders in the judicial reform process culminated in the justice sector stakeholders forum that took place on May 31, 2018, before the commencement of project activities. This approach has continued to the present, as the judiciary continues to receive daily feedback from Stakeholders that help to improve and fine-tune the RivCoMis platform on a continuous basis.

The reform came with practice directions to legitimize the new procedures and protocols. This process is also dynamic to match the frequency with which modifications and improvements occur. The Hon. Chief Judge rightly observed that the judiciary took advantage of the trend when she said the following: “more than ever before, the pandemic revealed most of the inadequacies of the manual system and informed how the use of technology can greatly improve access to justice and speed up the delivery of same. This swelling tide, in addition to the all-round support of the Executive, gave the judiciary the needed impetus to embark on the audacious journey of automating the Rivers State Judiciary.”

Some of the achievements within the first-year deployment of RivCoMis are as follows: E-filing. Lawyers can now file cases online from wherever they are. Beyond filing cases, they can also track the progress of their case files and receive regular notifications from when it is acted upon by the registry to when it is assigned to a judge and afterward, as hearing notices issue. E-Payment. Payments are also made online and can be easily tracked.

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Virtual/Remote Court Hearing. Remote hearing is also another feature that has been integrated into the RivCoMiS platform. Judges, Magistrates, and Counsel can agree to a physical or virtual case hearing. So far, several cases have been heard virtually. E-Affidavits. The public can now create files and pay for general affidavits from the system. These affidavits carry tracking numbers for ease of verification. E-Lis Pendens Registry. Cataloguing of all land-related matters has been done. This enables the public to conduct a search and verify the status of any land of interest, particularly whether such land is the subject matter of any court dispute.

The public can now get information on disputed land cases before the High court and magistrate courts in the State. Capacity Development. For the effective, efficient, and sustainable implementation of the RivCOMiS platform, capacity development of the various users of the platform was carried out. They include Lawyers, registrars, magistrates, judges, bailiffs, etc. Migration of old cases. Another feat achieved so far is the migration of all cases filed in 2019. As at the time of this report, over 90% of such cases in the high courts have been migrated and these cases can now be easily accessed by the lawyers, registrars, Judges, and Magistrates from the RivCoMiS platform.

Effective Virtual & Physical Support. Both physical and virtual support is available for all users of the platform to ensure business continuity within and after work hours. Deployment of Court Room Technology (CRT). The courtroom technology with verbatim reporting has been deployed in two (2) pilot courts to help the Judges effectively record proceedings without the tedium of writing in longhand. Deployment of Hardware, Local Area Network & Internet Bandwidth. Over five hundred laptops, active and passive devices with STM1 internet bandwidth were deployed in magistrate and High courts in Rivers State. The RivComiS platform is configured to track the performance of users and obtain vital statistics necessary for the evaluation and improvement of the platform.

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Some of the 1st year vital statistics of the platform include the following: Users – 7,591; New Suits Filed – 6,776; Applications Filed- 6,013; Affidavits Processed-8, 343. Some detailed analysis of the activities of the Courts within the period have been tracked as follows: 633 hearings at both the High Court and Magistrate’s Courts; 990 Motions at both the High Court and Magistrate’s Courts; 447 pleas at both courts; 83 Judgments at both courts, etc.

It is worthy of note that the Rivers State Executive Governor H. E. Ezenwo Nyesom Wike, CON, GSSRS, PoS Africa, has lent his full weight in both the funding of the project and approving technical support from the Executive. In the same vein, His Lordship, the Chief Judge of Rivers State, Honourable Justice A. I. Iyayi-Lamikanra took ownership of the project and gave direction to its implementation and adoption, starting with the appointment of a judicial ICT committee led by Honourable Justice Elsie Thompson.

We extend appreciation and commendations to all stakeholders especially the Bar. Their useful feedbacks and inputs have been invaluable in developing, improving, and managing the platform. The Judiciary highly values the robust partnership and support flowing from the Bar in respect of this project, and appeals for a continuation of the warm support as the project enters a new phase of advanced features, more automation, and enlarged scope.

Kobani-Buzugbe is the Chief Registrar of the High Court of Rivers State.

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