George Etomi is the first Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Section on Business Law and Principal Partner of George Etomi & Partners. In this interview with YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO, he spoke about the impact COVID-19 is likely to have on the legal system, going forward and how it may likely change the face of Nigeria’s democracy.
What do you think about the lockdown on some states as a way to reducing the spread of COVID-19 pandemic? Don’t you think the restriction infringes on the freedom of movement vide sections 40 and 41 of the constitution?
The order was issued pursuant to the powers given to the President under the Quarantine Act, 2004 of the law of the federation; this empowers him to issue regulations to safeguard citizens of this country against pandemics such as the COVID-19. Some have argued that he should have, perhaps, declared a state of emergency before doing this so as not to infringe on the rights of citizens to move freely as contained in Sections 40 and 41 of the 1999 Constitution. This may be so, but given the Res Ipsa Loquitor nature of this pandemic, it stands to reason that the action taken by the president is the right one.
What in your view are the effects of Coronavirus on the legal system?
The effect has been quite devastating if you look at it from various aspects of legal practice. First of all, under the directive of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, all courts have been shutdown until further notice. What this means is that litigants are unable to continue or conclude litigations and consequently, a lot of legal obligations are “hanging in the air”, which is not ideal for harmony in the society.
Secondly, many lawyers who depend on court practice for their income are hard hit financially. This is even more pronounced amongst young lawyers, who depend on appearance fees to make some decent income. At this point, I give kudos to various branches of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other ad hoc bodies of lawyers, who have set up some kind of welfare funds to assist these vulnerable lawyers.
Thirdly, this pandemic also exposes the weakness in our legal system where technology still plays a very minor role in legal proceedings. Otherwise, it will only make sense that a practice directive be issued to our various courts to start taking proceedings via electronic means (for example, zoom, Skype and other sources of secure video conferencing interfaces) to resolve disputes. I know some time ago, there was a lot of move towards getting lawyers email addresses tied to the Supreme Court as first step towards digitalising our legal system. I don’t know the fate of that, but clearly the delay of having our court systems fully digitalised is doing a great havoc to our legal system. For example, many courts in various countries that are suffering lockdowns due to COVID-19 are hearing cases and judgments are being delivered and enforced. This obvious lapse makes us very uncompetitive and will perhaps elevate other dispute platforms like mediation and arbitrations, above our court system. Unfortunately, this means that only a small proportion of the citizens will then have access to justice. This simply means that post COVID-19, utmost priority must be given to the modernisation of our justice delivery system.
We should also not forget that the process of turning out lawyers, through the university system and Law School, should also adapt to modern teaching systems. The question to ask is must everybody assemble in one location to go through law school and be called to the bar? Can’t we do online training and set online exams like we see with other professional bodies? All these should be looked at as a response to COVID-19.
Does it also affect cross border practice?
Yes, it obviously will affect cross border practice, as Nigeria will remain a low priority as a place of choice for dispute resolution.
As an erudite lawyer on health law, can any of the survivors of Coronavirus challenge government for compensation?
This is highly unlikely. This is because the pandemic is an event that is unforeseeable, unavoidable, totally overwhelming and not of the creation of the government. On the contrary, citizens are enjoined to follow the clear directives of the government, health authorities, especially the Nigeria Centre of Disease Control (NCDC) to prevent and/or reduce the spread of this virus.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues to take a toll on global and domestic economies, market capitalisation depreciates on daily basis. Doesn’t it mean that the country will experience recession again? How do you think the economy can be revived?
The prediction is that the global economy will go into a recession and Nigeria is highly likely to be one of the countries that will experience this. In anticipation of this, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Federal Ministry of Finance have announced stimulus and other economic packages to revive the economy and put it back on the path of recovery. Some of these measures include some kind of concessions on term loans given by the CBN, the lowering of interest rates, the granting of facilities to the MSMEs and there are programmes to boost agricultural activities to make us self-sufficient in food. What is clear to me in all of this is that we should look inwards for the solution to this crisis. The overdependence on imports goods should be a thing of the past and the more we patronise locally manufactured products, the quicker we will become self-sufficient.
This should permeate everything we do, from feeding ourselves, clothing ourselves (wigs and gowns not excepted), Nigerian industries should be patronised, and we should learn to do without non-essentials. Patriotism should find a new meaning in the post COVID-19 era and we should all be watchdogs to ensure that no one steps out of line. The legal profession itself should learn to do away with antiquated practices that have little or no bearing on justice delivery such as insistence on wearing wig and gown, to give way to actually allowing the law to play a harmonious role in society. Today, the mystique around the practice of law has distanced Nigerians from the justice delivery system and this must be addressed. I have no doubt that the resilient nature in every one of us will overcome this very trying period, provided we all contribute towards its defeat.
You have spoken on the effects of COVID-19 on the legal system but do you foresee it changing the face of the legal system?
Yes, clearly. The post COVID-19 legal system will have different characteristics from what we have today. If we start with our court system, many disputes will have to be resolved electronically because I foresee crowded courts with just one judge taking evidence long hand as a thing of the past. Therefore, as of necessity, our judges will have to be IT complaint and even today, if lockdowns or physical distancing rules continue, then court proceedings will have to be done online. In a manner of speaking, this will enable our judges to concentrate on the evidence before them and remove the distractions, which lead very often to unnecessary adjournments of matters. Decisions will come out quicker and it is then left for enforcement proceedings. If matters go on appeal, all the records will be transmitted electronically, and it will eliminate delays in compiling records of proceedings as we see today. All of this will have been compiled from the beginning. It also means that judges don’t have to be in court all the time to continuously listen to matters and take decisions.
On the part of legal education and if we take the Law School as an example, we don’t need to aggregate thousands of students in a hall to instruct them or for them to take exams and even call them to the bar. E-learning can take care of these. This is in fact being done in so many jurisdictions outside of this country. If we look at the potential risks’ students are placed in when they have to travel long distances to acquire knowledge, COVID-19 has taught us that we have to do things differently. I believe that the council of legal education will look seriously into this.
What are the possible impacts you think the pandemic could have on the democratic system in future?
One of the major areas that will be impacted will be our voting mechanism. As it is now, I think we have very little choice but to do full scale electronic voting. We were told that this virus might be seasonal, which means that it will now become a part of our lives, which itself means that we can never lower our guards at any point.
Once physical distancing becomes second nature to us; then the issue of long lines waiting for people to cast their votes would become a thing of the past. So, e-voting, voting by mail and even campaigns could be devoid of those huge gatherings.
Another major thing that will come up for consideration post COVID-19 is the cost of governance. In the face of a possible economic meltdown, Nigerians are questioning if it is really worth it to have such an expensive way to run government. For example, do we need a bicameral legislature? Or will a unicameral do? And do the numbers have to be that many?
What I would simply advise is that if these issues ever arise, we should all keep an open mind for the greater good and we should look to develop homegrown solutions to our problems.
How would you describe the preparations of the Nigerian government to meet emergence situation like we are facing currently?
Nigeria lives with epidemics such as Lassa fever, malaria, cholera and the NCDC is doing a good job in its response to these threats. Also, globally, Nigeria is positively construed regarding its response to emergency situations. A good example is our response to the Ebola outbreak and that template is used globally. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is a totally different kettle of fish because of the pervading nature of the disease. We can see how this disease has challenged existing health infrastructure in the developed world not to talk about developing economies like ours whose healthcare structure is severely challenged. As part of our response, we should look inwards and develop our health care facilities in Nigeria to be able to cope with any type of medical emergency. In this regard, it is welcome that one of the measures taken by the government is to ban civil servants from receiving medical treatment from abroad. I believe very strongly that one of the net positive effects from this COVID-19 is that more and better attention will be paid to improving our healthcare infrastructure. All over the world, Nigerian healthcare personnel are making waves; there is absolutely no reason why we cannot internalize this. The NCDC most continuously be strengthened to have quick responses to future medical emergencies.
Despite the first two weeks of lockdown in some states, victims of the pandemic keep on increasing, is there any possibility the government might declare another week of lockdown for the third time if the number of those testing positive does not abate?
I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case. What is most important is that we must do everything in our power to prevent an explosion such as we are seeing in Europe and the US. It is a nightmare we must never go through. So, Nigerians should understand that all the measures within our individual control such as; good hygiene, washing our hands, keeping clean, physical/social distancing, good nutrition to build the immune system, exercising and most important of all keeping a positive attitude, will help a lot.
What areas of legislation do you think the National Assembly should earnestly look at to help Nigerians; peradventure this type of incidence recurs in future?
There are enough laws to cater for so many things; the question has always been the will to enforce these laws. I give kudos to the National Assembly for being on top of their game in legislating for palliatives, through the various stimulus packages. Like every Nigerian, I pray that we get over this pandemic and learn educative lessons from them.