South Africa: The Justice System Is Showing Signs of Rot

Judges and lawyers who care need to stop it

We are fortunate that during the Jacob Zuma presidency, the judiciary remained largely “uncaptured”. But for a long time there have been warning signs of rot setting in.

The fault lies not only with judges, but with the justice system – from failures by the police through to the Legal Practice Council, the Judicial Service Commission, the Office of the Chief Justice and the Minister of Justice.

Here are a few examples we’ve either reported, investigated or are directly involved in:

For months almost no cases were heard at the Parow Sexual Offences Court because of broken stenography machines. No one took responsibility for fixing them. Neither the Department of Justice, the Office of the Chief Justice nor the Parow Regional Court appeared the slightest bit concerned when we contacted them.

A murder trial in the Khayelitsha Magistrates Court was postponed – not for the first time – because the court had run out of photocopy paper.

It has taken over 15 months for an acting judge in the Western Cape High Court to deliver a vital judgment on emergency accommodation. We frequently report extremely late judgments.

In April this judgment was handed down by an acting judge in the Western Cape High Court. We invite you to browse it. Many high school students, let alone lawyers, would be embarrassed to do something this incompetent.

It took five years for the NPA to get a guilty verdict against a teacher who sexually abused a learner. The case was repeatedly postponed for poor reasons. Needless postponements are standard practice in South African courts, and both lawyers and judges are to blame.

We have taken the Legal Practice Council to court because of its failure to act against a corrupt lawyer who committed forgery. Our inbox is inundated with complaints about this moribund institution. As one leading lawyer told us: “I don’t know if there is anything the Legal Practice Council has done since its inception that hasn’t been tinged with ineptitude, cowardice or stupidity.”

The Judicial Service Commission, especially as evidenced in recent public interviews it has conducted, has become hostage to the political whims of the EFF. It has failed to hold corrupt judges like John Hlophe to account. It is disgraceful that Hlophe has remained Judge President of the Western Cape High Court for 22 years.

The Office of the Chief Justice was established under Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who used it as his personal travel agency, resulting in profligate expenditure.

The Minister of Justice has given a hand-waving inadequate explanation of his role in his former law firm’s shoddy investigation of Lottery corruption, for which it received millions of rands. There should have at least been an investigation, if not the resignation of the minister.

Of course, we also frequently report judgments in which courts have worked, judges have diligently applied their minds to complicated ethical problems and reached decisions that serve justice. But there are many other examples of failure.

The situation will get much worse unless good lawyers and judges, who surely constitute the majority, start to take action to reverse the rot. They need to ally with organisations like Judges Matter and speak out more frequently when their colleagues and institutions let the justice system down.

Fikile Mbalula is going after us for R2 million. We must be doing something right. Support news that matters. Please donate to GroundUp.

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