UNODC hosts webinar on using innovative IT solutions in support of criminal proceedings against terrorism, violent extremism, piracy and maritime crime in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak

Abuja, 18 September 2020 - Many courts across Nigeria have been struggling to process heavy caseloads for years and the onset of the COVID-19 crisis has made a challenging situation even more difficult by preventing in-person hearings in court rooms across Nigeria out of very legitimate public health concerns. It is clear that something needs to be done urgently to address this situation and it now seems that virtual or online hearings could be a potential solution.

The judiciary in Nigeria has been very quick to recognise the potential of using virtual hearings in these troubled times, and in recent months courts have issued various practice directions to enable some hearings to proceed online or via video link. In accordance with these practice directions, a number of virtual hearings have already started to take place, including before the Federal High Court.

In order to discuss and develop key insights on the use of virtual hearings, and in support of the criminal justice system of Nigeria, UNODC’s EU funded projects – Support to West Africa Integrated Maritime Security (SWAIMS) and EU-Nigeria-UNODC-CTED Partnership Project III: Assisting Nigeria to Strengthen the Criminal Justice Responses to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – hosted a webinar on the use of innovative IT solutions in support of criminal proceedings against terrorism, violent extremism, piracy and maritime crime in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, which took place on 7 July 2020. The webinar was attended by approximately 50 Nigerian criminal justice practitioners from all areas of the criminal justice system. The facilitators were senior Nigerian stakeholders including Hon. Justice Faji from the Federal High Court of Nigeria, as well as facilitators drawn from across UNODC.

The webinar, which was very practical in nature, was well received by the participants, and elicited lively debates and discussions with numerous questions being asked of the facilitators. It is clear that virtual hearings do offer a number of potential benefits such as: cost savings: time savings; increased efficiency by enabling more cases to be heard; reduced delays; more efficient progressing of cases to trial; greater convenience; reduced security risks as suspects will not have to be transported to court; and public health benefits by, for example, reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19.

Whilst the benefits may appear very compelling, it was apparent from the discussions that there are also still many challenges which must be overcome if virtual hearings are to be effective in improving access to and the delivery of justice.. Practical challenges may include:

  1. Logistics – dropped connections, blurred images, distorted speech, background noise, and video images which get stuck are all capable of undermining the hearing;
  2. Difficulties in ensuring effective access to the hearings for the public;
  3. Practical problems in the giving and receiving of confidential instructions between lawyers and their clients;
  4. Practical interpretation problems and lack of trust if the interpreter and the person whose testimony or instructions are being interpreted are in different locations;
  5. Practical problems in the effectiveness of examination and cross-examination of witnesses, the judge’s assessment of oral evidence, and the submission of oral arguments;
  6. Practical problems in the virtual submission of documents, exhibits and other items to the judge during the hearing;
  7. The informality of the virtual hearing process may simply not look or feel right, and the informality may erode the respect for the justice process.

Video link and virtual hearings hearings are a very useful tool, but they do have their challenges and limitations. When assessing the appropriateness of holding a virtual hearing in a particular case, consideration must be given as to how such a hearing could impact both the civil and human rights of all concerned parties, especially fair trial standards such as the right to an effective defence, and also to the issue of public access to trials so that justice is not just done but, equally important, is also seen to be done. These practical challenges must be identified and addressed in advance of any hearing. If the practical challenges cannot be solved in a way which ensures a fair hearing or trial process, then the potential use of a virtual hearing format should be excluded.

The webinar was extremely useful and productive. UNODC looks forward to continuing to work with the Nigerian justice sector and all other interested stakeholders to develop practical and innovative IT solutions which will enhance the delivery of justice both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.