South Africa’s justice system is to be fine-tuned to ensure that even the poorest citizens have easy access to it.
Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, in conjunction with the country’s heads of courts, recently resolved to establish a committee to find ways to introduce “long-term fundamental improvements” to justice accessibility.
Ngcobo made the announcement at a conference in Johannesburg, which ran from 8 to 10 July 2011.
Aptly themed Access to Justice, the event was attended by various role-players, ranging from judges to prosecutors and Cabinet members.
The Ngcobo-led committee will comprise sector leaders from the courts, general legal profession, Cabinet and legislature, as well heads from civil society and public interest law groups.
The group will focus on resolving bottlenecks that block access to the courts and impair their efficiency.
Conference delegates identified various challenges that, if resolved, could improve both accessibility and functionality.
The chief justice also spoke of creating a legal system that’s “inexpensive” and court processes that are understandable to everyone.
Delays in matter resolution was noted as one of the persistent factors that can make the judiciary unfair. Administration at courts needs to be improved to root out the unnecessary delays, said Ngcobo.
Ngcobo’s office said sub-committees focusing on court administration issues such as e-filling and case-flow management will emerge from the new group.
Availability and incompetence of translators in courts was noted as another prevailing stumbling block.
“Access to justice is also hindered by language. Some people lose cases due to incorrect interpretations by translators,” said President Jacob Zuma, who also attended the conference.
A shortage of translators in certain parts of the country results in further delays. “Sometimes translators take three months to translate documents, in the meantime where’s the suspect? He’s in custody,” said Gauteng Judge President Bernard Ngoepe.
“There’s no easy solution to these (problems), we need to commit resources,” Ngoepe added.
There’s also a need to bring courts closer to communities, so that defendants and litigants do not have to spend money on transport to attend trial hearings. Zuma said the government has allocated R2.5-billion (US$365-million) to build new courts across the country. Construction of high courts in Mbombela/Nelspruit and Polokwane was announced earlier in 2011.
Civil claims will be sped up through 224 small claims courts which were recently established across the country.
“On record, over 400 000 cases have been dealt with by the small claims courts over the past year and this is evidence of justice by poor litigants,” said Zuma.
“The right to access of courts requires both the availability of court facilities in the first instance, and courts that are user-friendly and accessible by all people, including individuals who are physically challenged …” Ngcobo added.
Improving Legal Aid
Legal Aid South Africa funds attorney charges for suspects who cannot afford the fees. Zuma said they have allocated R437-million ($64-million) to Legal Aid to ensure its “increased capacity”.
Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu is in favour of reviewing some Legal Aid policies. He noted that if a suspect’s request for funding was turned down, they’d have to approach the Supreme Court of Appeal, where they’d have to rely on services of attorneys.
“How would an indigent person with no means to support himself or herself afford a lawyer considering that legal fees are so high?” asked Sisulu.
A lawyer’s charges would deter that suspect to seek access to the Supreme Court of Appeal. He noted that a junior attorney would charge about R8 000 ($1 168) a day, while a senior one costs more than R30 000 ($4 383) a day.
The Legal Practice Bill, currently before parliament, partly focuses on capping charges of lawyers and advocates.
Media’s courts coverage lauded
The media’s role in promoting access to justice and confidence in the judiciary was also a hot topic at the conference.
Ngcobo said that the local media was doing a good job in covering the courts, and in the process was making citizens aware of their rights and channels to seek recourse.
“This is a crucial role because it makes justice accessible by publicising matters,” Ngcobo said. “Our people will not be able to enforce their rights unless they know what rights they have.”
Judiciary independence guaranteed
Ngcobo has been focusing on reforms to strengthen the judiciary’s independence since replacing Pius Langa in 2009. He wants to ensure that the judiciary is self-governing, so that the public is certain of its partiality in all cases.
Parliament is to start working on the Constitution Seventeenth Amendment Bill, which, once enacted, will affirm the chief justice’s position as head of the country’s judiciary.
The Superior Courts Bill is also currently before parliament. Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe said once adopted, this will give powers to the chief justice “to issue directives and protocols for the monitoring of the performance of judicial functions in all the courts”.
The enactment of the two bills “will put us on course for the ultimate goal of administrative autonomy which will enhance judicial independence”, said Radebe.
Zuma guaranteed the judiciary of its independence from the government’s influence. “As the executive, we remain committed to the independence of the judiciary as entailed in our constitution,” Zuma said.
“Our constitution has adequate checks and balances to protect and safeguard the independence of the judiciary,” the president added.