* Ebere Nwankpa
A seasoned policy and management professional, and author. He lives in Abuja, Nigeria
Before the advent of the novel coronavirus, crowded courtrooms in many well-trafficked jurisdictions that support high population centers was a way of life in Nigeria. The administration of justice and the conduct of court business in this era of increasing COVID-19 infections and fatalities, have to evolve to accommodate this new phenomenon called “social distancing” in order to facilitate continuity in the judicial administration of justice, even while the efficacy of the new regulations on “social distancing” continue to be refined.
As a matter of nomenclature and description, the phrase ‘social distancing’ is weighed down by inherent intuitive limits at variance with natural human tendencies. It also portends a distinct emotional dissonance, at a time fraught with mental and psychological challenges. Hence, I prefer to use the term physical distancing instead. It is more factually apt, and elides the unsubtle insensitivity of the other phrase.
As a matter of practice, in a world recovering from the depredations of the coronavirus, physical distancing is likely to persist as a prophylactic, even as lockdown regulations are relaxed around the world. What will these new measures and new way of life mean for the administration of justice and the conduct of business in courts by lawyers, judges, court staff and litigants?
Congested courtrooms in particular, and legal premises that are the locus of heavy human traffic are especially vulnerable to contagion, sometimes with fatal consequences. Even court proceedings convened to administer new lockdown regulations and punish defaulters have failed notably to observe rudimentary physical distancing.
Furthermore, as courts reopen, the dense backlog of suspended business will result in a rush. Courts are likely to be inundated with accumulated volumes and pent up demand for new court dates. The likelihood of physical and systemic overcrowding as a result is very high. This immediate outcome should be anticipated, planned for and avoided.
In essence, the busiest courts in many jurisdictions will have to confront both short and long term problems around implementing physical distancing protocols where congestion once prevailed. Among many fundamental issues that should be discussed is whether a court appearance is necessary or required at all for litigation to be successfully initiated and completed.
While fundamental issues around the administration and delivery of justice are pondered, more pressing and current issues will have to be met with speed and dispatch. Reliance on technology and remote applications will need to be maximized, entrenched and integrated into court proceedings. Court scheduling will have to be adapted to limit human traffic. Court accommodations will need to be redesigned to accord with strict physical distancing requirements. The handling of paper documents will need to be revised, and progressively eliminated. Marshaling and crowd control measures will need to be put in place for peak occasions. Frontline court staff will require adequate protection and assurances.
These and more will need to be instituted without compromising the effective day-to-day functioning and cardinal mission of the courts—to deliver justice without delay. It is possible that there will be a period of flux and some uncertainty as new measures are incorporated. For the immediate, and future challenges iterated herein, a measure of understanding and forbearance will be a necessary imperative among all actors within the judicial and legal fraternity as they in turn educate their clients and the citizenry at large.
* The views expressed in this entry belong entirely to the author.