The concept of access to justice is often misunderstood by many in society, some even limit its definition to the affordability of legal representation in court litigations. In unpacking this concept, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr Jeff Radebe presented a comprehensive and profound public lecture, unpacking efforts undertaken by the department to ensure access to justice for all.
The public lecture, first of its kind by Minister Radebe was held at the University of Fort Hare, Alice in the Eastern Cape, on 31 July 2013. In attendance were the academic staff, legal luminaries from in and around the area, students and the media.
In simplifying the concept of access to justice, Minister Radebe made reference to the 2011 Access to Justice Conference convened by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo. The minister spoke of some of the resolutions adopted by the conference, one of which was to take the necessary measures in enhancing access to justice which involves the restructuring and sufficiently resourcing small claims courts, community courts and traditional courts.
Further elaborating on the concept of access to justice, the minister said: “In its broadest sense, the concept entails the progressive realisation of the rights entrenched in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution and the ability of every citizen to claim the fulfilment of such rights,” explained Minister Radebe.
He acknowledged the role played by institutions such as the Office of the Public Protector, South African Human Rights Commission, Legal Aid South Africa and the National Prosecuting Authority in strengthening constitutional democracy. “Not only do these institutions enhance access to justice for majority of our people, but also hold government and organs of state accountable for their programmes and actions that are funded through public purse,” he said.
The minister also reflected on the department’s infrastructure development programme undertaken in the past few years. He explained that the department channels more than 80 percent of its R16 billion budget to Access to Justice Programme.
“The programme covers the building and distribution of court facilities and offices of the Master of the High Courts, which are the country’s prime service delivery points,” said Minister Radebe.
Other critical projects undertaken in advancing access to justice is the roll-out of the small claims courts countrywide and the reintroduction of sexual offences courts. Sexual offences courts seek to eliminate the scourge of gender based violence.
The minister further reflected on the transformation of the judiciary on racial, gender representation and other features of the South African society. However, he raised concerns on the slow pace in which women judges are appointed. “Out of a total of 311 judges appointed since the establishment of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in 1994, only 76 are women.”
He assured delegates and prospective law students that steps are being taken to include transformation in the legal profession so as to increase the number of students studying law. “The increase will assist in producing more attorney and advocates that can potentially be judges.” The session also afforded audience an opportunity to ask questions emanating from the minister’s lecture. Professor Farhad Aghdasi from the Faculty of Science and Agriculture asked Minister Radebe if the department is doing something to ensure effective parole mechanism that can assist in addressing the issue of crime in the country.
In response, the minister said the Department of Correctional Services has embarked on a pilot project of tracking some of the prisoners released on parole to ensure that they do not re-offend.
Sinakho Ngoma, a law student at the University of Fort Hare shared her sentiments on the minister’s lecture relating to transformation. “I’m grateful that women are more empowered to become judges and magistrates. It gives me hope that we, as future attorneys, have a sense of direction to become anything we want to be in the legal profession,” she remarked.
The Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Professor Larry Obi expressed his gratitude on the minister’s public lecture saying that the university is looking forward to future engagements with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. As a token of appreciation, Minister Radebe received a book written by one of the students in the university, titled: Under Protest.
University of Fort Hare is a historic institution in the country which played a pivotal role in sharpening some of the prolific leaders in Africa. Some of the leaders like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Robert Mugabe and many more, who immensely shaped the course of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid studied at this institution.
By Benson Ntlatleng