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ex-Edo CJ: Open data would aid transparency and accountability in the justice sector

Former Chief Judge of Edo State, Justice Esohe Ikponmwen has said that open data would aid transparency and accountability in the justice sector. According to her, courts must employ the much-needed open data to facilitate open justice.

The concept of open data, she explained, is where data is made freely available to everyone to use and republish without restrictions from copyright, patents, or other mechanisms.

“The court system ought to benefit immensely from open data as this gives rise to open knowledge. Information should be available and accessible,” she stated as a keynote speaker in a workshop organized by Freedom of Information (FOI) Counsel, in collaboration with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Benin branch to commemorate open data day.

The event, which was held at the NBA House, Benin, with the theme: “Open Justice,” was held online and physically and was moderated by Mr. President Agbokhan, director, FOI Counsel together with Mr. Abbo Leon, a brand consultant.

Justice Ikponmwen said the concept of open justice requires, not only transparency but also the openness of all legal processes. She argued that by extension, open justice applies the principle of open government that has the hallmark of transparency, civic participation, and public accountability.

“There is no gainsaying that in our country today, open government is not practiced, and little wonder the effect on the justice system. Anyone or institution that truly wants to strengthen democratic institutions must work for the implementation of open data and policy and accountability.

“It is imperative for courts of law to hold sittings in public. Not only should proceedings be conducted in the open, evidence presented in court is communicated publicly to those in court, making sure fair and accurate reports of judicial proceedings by persons or the media be open,” she insisted.

Noting that the principle of open justice is not absolute, Justice Ikponmwen said certain information might be concealed from the public to protect the safety of persons and prevent undue distress and embarrassment.

The former CJ, who lamented that there is inadequate knowledge by government institutions and public officials of their duties under the Freedom of Information Act, 2007, stressed that capacity strengthening of the institutions in the justice sector is essential to promoting access to justice, independence of the judiciary, coordination, and cooperation across justice sector as well as improving public perception and confidence.

She also called for financial autonomy for the judiciary and warned that as long as the judiciary depends on the executive for funds, it cannot foot the wage bill for openness in all ramifications.

The chairman of the NBA Benin branch, Mr. Pius Oiwo, said the technology would be the heart of the newly sought open justice. According to him, the ways in which technology and society change impact the law and justice sector in general. “In this gap, a transparent or open justice system embedded with democratic values is needed more than ever before,” he stated.

Oiwo explained that a decrease in the number of statutes that threaten open justice and judicial institutional integrity has the potential to protect some aspects of open justice. “I hope to learn more as the conversation continues on the role of the court in allowing access to public records just as it allows public hearings, new media in the courtroom, and open court principle in criminal adjudication, transparency in the selection of judges and datasets in law and justice.

“No doubt, open justice facilitates sensationalism or curiosity about court proceedings. Appeals to open justice are most often associated with media pressure to be permitted to do more reports,” he pointed out, adding that legal stakeholders must successfully articulate an approach to open justice that balances access against the potential harms of publicity.

In his presentation, the convener, of Access to Justice, Mr. Joseph Otteh said the process for selecting judges in both lower and higher courts must be opened up.

He said: “The Judiciary is the least democratic branch of government.  It does not quite operate an open system of appointing those who are paid from the public revenue, in the same way as the executive and legislative branches. That’s why the US adopts a democratic model.”

He warned that making transparent the process of judicial appointment is so vital because judges can make or mar a democracy.

“So, a nation’s judiciary determines how quite a lot of things go, and how the rule of law is respected, and what kinds of limitations are enforced against the power of the executive. If a Nation’s judiciary is weak, we can see the government run amok with civil rights and liberties.

“How do you find out if a Nation’s judiciary is weak? One indicator is that the Judiciary feels helpless – or acts it out when the government disobeys its orders. Consider our country: in spite of the dozens and maybe hundreds of court orders that have been disobeyed, no court has been able to send one government official to jail,” Otteh regretted.

He insisted that the standard of recruitment of judges has been poor in the country and insisted that Nigeria must ensure that only the best are selected for the Judiciary.

“Where the judiciary fails to recruit the most qualified candidates to judicial office, the quality of administration of justice in such a system would predictably remain below par and unsatisfactory to court users in that jurisdiction,” he added.

He explained that the Judiciary has consistently failed to comply with the Extant Revised Guidelines for the Appointment of Judges, following the observation of his group in previous recruitment exercises in the country.

For Aigbokhan, the FOI Counsel boss, live broadcast of court proceedings is the heart of open justice.

“Information is a key mechanism for innovating the law. Open legal data/ information is the foundation of a dynamic legal system. Citizens can review available information to evaluate criminal justice outcomes so as to provide valuable insights for policymaking,” he said, adding that despite ongoing development in open government initiatives and constitutional provision on open justice, the interface between ICT and the justice sector is at its lowest ebb.

According to him, the notion of openness in the judiciary is still opaque and unexplored in terms of emolument, judges’ selection criteria, judgment per judge annually, and publication of lower court’s judgments among others.

He insisted that media coverage of judicial proceedings needs to be updated in line with the reality of new media.

“We are in an era where court proceedings can be broadcasted live as a new approach to access to the court. There is also the need for the court to create an Access to Information Policy as this is a requirement of the Freedom of Information Act 2011, which mandates all MDAs in federal and state to embrace proactive disclosure,” Aigbokhan said.

Comrade Austine Osakue explained that the open justice system is long overdue. He noted that the judiciary, which is the most crucial arm of government, is the one that is kept most secretive.

“I said it is ironic because of the particular place of the judiciary as that arm of the government that has the constitutional responsibility of interpreting laws, apportioning blames to lawbreakers, and reviewing government actions. It is the one that does not have the muscle to carry out its functions. That is the beginning of our quest for open justice,” he said.

According to Osakue, the judiciary is presented as an arm of government that is anti-people, one that is alienated from the people.

He said: “We are talking about open justice, let us start from there. The reason is that the background of the judiciary is so elitist. It is now that lawyers graduate and they have no job that that notion has been demystified. Before now, it was seen as one cabal that you cannot find entrance into.

“Because there is no openness and justice, people prefer to settle their matter at the police station rather than going to court. One of the benefits of open justice is that it rebuilds the confidence of the people that they can approach the court and get justice.”

So, the beginning of the quest for the open justice system, he insisted, is to open it up in real-time and let people watch the proceedings of a court.

“I want to watch from the comfort of my living room the proceedings in a case that is of public interest. Unless there is financial autonomy for the judiciary, we cannot begin to talk about the open justice system,” he said.

He suggested the establishment of a people’s court, where young lawyers could be made judges and communities could approach them for adjudication. He warned that a time would come when the courts would be empty because people are exploring alternative dispute resolution mechanisms as a result of losing faith in the system.

Osakue also harped on the need to deploy technology, lamenting that the executive unfortunately would not want to empower the judiciary, which would curtail their excesses.

Other speakers include John Osawe, SSA to the governor of Edo State on Data Analysis and Visualization, Abbas Inuwa, founder of Transparent IT, and Dr. Isaiah Osifo, former Chief of Staff to Edo State Government.

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