Commercial disputes: Stakeholders canvass for virtual Court hearings for speedy resolution

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By EricJames Ochigbo

Abuja, Sept. 22, 2020 Stakeholders on Tuesday called for the amendment of relevant rules and regulations to allow virtual Court hearings for speedy resolution of commercial disputes in Nigeria.

They made the call during a virtual dialogue organised by the Nigeria Competitiveness Project (NICOP).

Participants also said that it would boost ease of doing business in Nigeria.

NICOP is an European Union (EU) co-financed initiative under the West African Competitiveness Programme, aimed at strengthening the competitiveness of Nigeria and to enhance it’s integration into the regional and International trading system.

Ms Katrine Thomsen, Head of Economic Section, EU delegate, said Nigeria is a leading trading partner with the EU.

She said that Nigeria’s partnership with the EU is highly cherished and had continued to improve daily.

“To support that improvement and trading partnership with Nigeria and West Africa in general, the EU has committed 125 million Euros to improving the competitiveness of West African economies,”she said

Thomsen said that the objective of NICOP is to stimulate and improve competitiveness of Nigeria in some selected value chains and to support the business climate in the country.

She said that a proactive legal system is critical to improving investment and business climate.

According to her, if we must diversify the economy and improve the country’s ranking in the ease of doing business, reforming the court system especially for contract enforcement and commercial dispute settlement is critical.

“We welcome NICOP and other stakeholders, joining voices with the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osibanjo who recently advocated for new set of directives to enable virtual Court proceeding in the country.

”I am sure that the Supreme Court of Nigeria had ruled and confirm the legality of virtual Court hearing.

“To this end, Nigeria is demonstrating leadership in the new normal,”she said.

Also, the Head of Programmes, NICOP, Mr Markus Wauschkuhn, said that virtual Court hearing would strengthen Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and address key issues in business areas.

Wauschkuhn said that the idea is to improve the business environment and investment climate in the country.

According to him, NICOP had supported capacity development for commercial dispute resolution in focal states of Kano, Plateau, Ogun, Kaduna.

The Managing Partner, Law Future Partners (LFP), Mr Elvis Asia, said that the COVID-19 experience had presented an opportunity for Nigeria to fix the state of commercial dispute resolution which take almost forever.

In a paper titled “Opportunity for Contract Enforcement and Commercial Disputes Settlement Reform”, Asia said that it has serious negative effects on investors.

He said that transfer of Judges and calling off of hearing which contribute to the delay in serving justice would taken care off by virtual hearing.

Asia said virtual hearing would make recording easier, eliminate time wastage and corruption and fast-track quick delivery of judgment.

According to him, more members of the public can participate in any case of their interest from anywhere in the world.

He, however said that though there is no express provision for virtual Court hearing in the Constitution, it empowers Heads of Courts to make regulation for effective proceedings.

The legal practitioner said that there was need to amend the Evidence Act to clearly give credence to electronic copies of documents in the court.

He also called for the creation of a commercial Court division with requisite technology and skill acquisition for legal and paralegal practitioners.

In her contribution, Justice Olutoyin Ipaye of the Lagos State Judiciary, said that virtual court hearing had come to stay.

She recommended that virtual Court hearing should not be limited time-bound cases but should be expanded to cover all disputes.

Ipaye said that virtual hearing has tremendous advantages that will further enhance the justice system in the country.

Also, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mrs A. J Offiah, said that life is becoming more virtual than physical, saying that there is the need to address disputes virtually.

Offiah, who is the founder and principal partner of OBRA Legal, said that many heads of courts were already tilting towards virtual hearing.

She said there was need to create link between the database of all relevant government agencies with the Judiciary to enable easy access to authoritative documents.

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