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Small Claims Courts ensure Cost Effective and Swift Justice for the Poor

As one of its major priorities for this year, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development seeks to further bring speedy and cost effective justice services closer to the people.  Among the various measures identified for the realisation of this purpose is the redesignation of Small Claims Courts to all magisterial district. In his Budget Vote, the Deputy Minister, Mr Andries Nel, indicated that one of the department’s objectives is to ensure that there is at least one functioning and active Small Claims Court in the 384 magisterial districts.

“We are just over the halfway mark. Today, we have 206 functioning Small Claims Courts. Of these, 17 were added since January 2009. The proclamation of a further 3 is imminent,” Mr Nel explained. Among the beneficiaries of this project are the people of Alexandra, Gauteng Province, where the Deputy Minister officially launched a Small Claims Court this year. The community welcomed this development as they will no longer have to travel distances to claim redress for damages incurred.

Their sentiments were echoed by the Gauteng Regional Head, Emily Dhlamini, in her welcoming address. “Thank you all for coming to this important launch. A Small Claims Court was the only service missing in the Alexandra Magistrate’s Court. The people of this community now can truly access justice,” she said. While delivering the keynote address, Deputy Minister Nel said the launch of the court was an important milestone in ensuring that justice is accessible and served. “Small Claims Courts are a powerful mechanism to provide access to justice, especially to the poor. These courts are based on speed, simplicity and cost effectiveness. They are created to eliminate time-consuming adversarial procedures before and during the trial.” He said the department further aims to establish additional 60 new courts by the end of the 2010 financial year and a further 60 by the end of the 2011 financial year. Assuring delegates about the department’s efforts in establishing these courts Deputy Minister Nel said “We are well on track to meet these targets.

With the launch of the Alexandra Small Claims Court we have established 11 courts since April.” Held at the Alexandra community centre, the event also saw the launch of the Practical Guidelines for Commissioners and Clerks of Small Claims Courts. This launch was preceded by a training session for all commissioners, to ensure consistency in assisting people who are in need of Small Claims Court services. The development of guidelines for commissioners of the Small Claims Court was initiated at the 2003 conference which was attended by delegates from the Department, Cape Law Society and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The conference was held in Cape Town and sort to discuss the transformation of the Small Claims Court.

The guidelines will benefit commissioners of the Small Claims Courts, court personnel and other professionals working with matters involving small claims between parties who seek fast and inexpensive legal redress. They are specifically designed to equip Commissioners with basic skills needed to adjudicate over small civil claims in terms of the Small Claims Court Act of 1984.  These guidelines will contribute to the reengineering of the Small Claims Courts and clarifies the procedures and augments the skills required by commissioners and professionals to carry out their responsibility effectively. They will also assist in standardising the practice of Small Claims Courts, thereby enhancing their performance and their ability to provide justice to all. Initially, commissioners never received any formal training on Small Claims Court legislation and practice. They have had to largely depend on their experience as legal practitioners and academics in carrying out their mandate of presiding over these courts. Commissioners of the Small Claims Courts are drawn from the ranks of attorneys, advocates, retired magistrates and legal academics and are required to draw on their legal training and expertise in conducting Small Claims Courts duties.

The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) welcomed the revised and updated guidelines, saying that the organisation believes that this will provide a clearer and more complete guide to attorneys who sit as commissioners in the Small Claims Courts as well as clerks of the courts who are tasked with assisting members of the public. LSSA views the initiative as a tool to assist all the stakeholders to provide a more efficient and effective resolution of the matters in these courts for members of the public.  The LSSA commended all attorneys who made themselves available on a pro bono basis. LSSA is proud of the initiative as it promotes access to justice for the public in an easily accessible and cost effective forum.

By Neliswa Demana
Justice Today 2010, Issue 3