There is a circular from the Chief Justice of Nigeria issued on 06 April 2020 to all Heads of Courts, directing the suspension of court sittings in Nigeria indefinitely.
This is sequel to an earlier directive he issued on 23 March 2020 directing the suspension of court sittings for an initial period of two weeks, in response to the spread of Coronavirus, and the attendant directives of the Federal Government for restriction of movement in some States in Nigeria.
Now, given the present state of affairs, and considering that no one can say with any certainty when normalcy will return, I think we may have to think of ways that this suspension of judicial activities will have the least impact on the stakeholders in the system and the country generally.
We know that ordinarily, most courts in Nigeria will proceed for an annual long vacation of about six to eight weeks, commencing usually in July and terminating in September of each year. At this time, the courts do not sit, except to hear urgent matters of which a judge may be designated to take on at the time.
The directive of the Chief Justice to the Heads of Courts has effectively foisted on judges and lawyers an unplanned vacation. We have no idea how long this will last. I therefore suggest that the judicial calendar for the year 2020 for all superior courts should be altered. More specifically, superior courts of record across the country should proceed on their annual vacations. The vacation may indeed be backdated to commence on 23 March 2020 for eight weeks or whatever vacation period each court would ordinarily have. If at the end of the vacation, the situation has not normalized enough for judges to return to work, then it may be extended till such a time it will be safe for the courts to resume regular sitting.
If there is no change to the court calendar as suggested, we may be faced with a situation where the courts may be closed till say, the end of May, and upon resumption will close again for the annual vacation. That will certainly not be in anyone’s best interest.
There should also be a clear directive regarding the time within which to take any steps in court. So, the time to file processes and the penalties attendant to filing out of time should be put in abeyance till further notice. That means that time should not run till the courts reopen for normal business and processes can therefore be filed. Even if the annual vacation is accommodated within this period, such a directive from the courts may still be necessary to ensure that all processes are covered and not just pleadings.
These are unusual times; therefore, the Chief Justice and the Heads of Courts need to think outside the box. There is a need to minimize the impact of Covid-19 lockdown on lawyers and litigants especially.
Ikenna Okoli, FCIArb., Lagos, Nigeria