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Speech by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, during the Debate on Vote 21: Justice and Constitutional Development, National Assembly, 19 May 2015

Honourable Minister
Members of the Judiciary
Honourable Members
Heads of Department
Distinguished guests
Colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Much has been said this year about the Freedom Charter. As we celebrate its 60th anniversary, we continue to further its ideals in the way we respond to the needs of the people.

As we celebrate Africa Month let us also be mindful that our Bill of Rights says that rights are afforded to every person within our borders – it speaks predominantly of “everyone”, in other words, not only citizens.

Is our justice system responsive to the needs of our people? The vision of our Department is to ensure an accessible justice system that promotes constitutional values and its mission is to provide transparent, responsive and accountable justice services.

The key question we need to keep asking ourselves is how do we make the justice system work better?  Access to justice is a constitutional imperative.  It is a fundamental right that unlocks access to all the other rights enshrined in our Constitution.  This right has the power to transform our society into a just and equitable one.

One of the ways we are trying to ensure that all people, even the poorest of the poor, are in a position to approach our courts, is through the establishment of accessible courts in all corners of our country.  This includes, in particular, Small Claims Courts.

We now have 340 small claims courts across the country. Many of the new Small Claims Courts are located in rural areas, such as Babanango (KZN) and Libode (EC).

This means that we have only 42 Small Claims Courts still to be established to be 100% compliant country-wide. This is remarkable progress.

We will be focussing in this financial year on improving the accountability and workings of the Small Claims courts.  We are also looking at ways to improve accountability. Currently most Small Claims Courts sit after hours, however, some like Alexandra and Tembisa, sit during the day. We are encouraging other Small Claims Courts to also sit during office hours, where this is possible so as to make them even more accessible. This is particularly important in rural areas where transport after hours becomes a problem.

I would also like to extend Government’s sincere appreciation to the legal practitioners, academics and the 20 magistrates that are making themselves available, and offer their services free of charge, to be appointed as Commissioners of the Small Claims Courts. These courts truly benefit our communities and very often the poorest of the poor. 

Chairperson, Honourable Members,
The Freedom Charter promises that all shall be equal before the law.  But how can people be equal before the law, if they do not know what the law is? What does it mean to live in a constitutional democracy, when people are not aware of their constitutional rights?

For this reason, we have put particular emphasis on improving constitutional awareness. Making justice accessible and raising constitutional awareness means shaping programmes in such a way that they have the most effect.

The reality is that many people live in rural areas and not all are literate. Even for those who are literate the Constitution is not always that easy to understand. One has to therefore tailor-make constitutional awareness programmes in a way that reaches people.

Our Department printed and distributed copies of the Constitution which are widely available in most government buildings. We have also translated the Constitution into all official languages and Braille. We have, in partnership with the Department of Basic Education, the SAHRC and the Foundation for Human Rights launched a booklet called the Constitution Made Easy for Learners and it is envisaged that it will be distributed to Grade 12 learners throughout the country.

We are planning to work even closer with civil society in future. Recognising the need for synergy, co-ordination and co-operation between government, Civil Society Organisations, Chapter 9 institutions and other relevant role players, our Department will be convening a workshop towards the end of July 2015. The workshop will focus on appropriate public awareness initiatives on the Constitution.

I am pleased to announce that with regards to the appointment of an Information Regulator in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act, that agreement has been reached with treasury on the grading of the Regulator and a letter will soon be sent to the Speaker, requesting her to initiate the nomination process envisaged in section 41 of the Act.  This section requires a multi-party committee of the National Assembly to assist with the nomination of persons who are eligible for appointment as members of the Regulator. The appointment of the members of the Regulator will, in turn, facilitate the commencement of the remainder of the Act.

There are important Bills on our legislative programme. The main thrust of the International Arbitration Bill is the adoption of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), Model Law. Arbitration is typically faster, less formal and more tailored to the particular dispute than court proceedings. The Bill is scheduled to be submitted to Parliament in November this year - we are, however, aiming to be ready before that date.

The Cybercrimes and Related Matters Bill is aimed at strengthening the criminal justice system as envisaged in the National Development Plan, by introducing measures which are aimed at combatting cybercrime.  It will be released for public comment by the Department in the near future before being introduced into Parliament.

We will be introducing the Traditional Courts Bill after consultations with relevant stakeholders.  Work has also commenced on a bill dealing with the lower courts.

Chairperson, Honourable Members,
Legal Aid South Africa has done sterling work in advancing access to justice for indigent persons in need of legal representation, though there are still challenges in the sense that demand outweighs supply.

Part of the good work by Legal Aid SA has been their role in developing and promoting the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. At the recent UN Crime Conference in Doha we received great acclaim for our work in this regard.  We are also pleased to note the appreciation expressed by the Portfolio Committee for the work being done by Legal Aid SA.

The past 3 years have been an exciting and innovative period for the sheriff’s profession.  Earlier this year 11 members were appointed to serve on the new Board for Sheriffs, which term of office commenced on the 2nd of March 2015.

In addition, we were proud to witness the launch of the new Sheriffs’ Guide earlier this year.   Recent evictions in Khayelitsha have highlighted the need for more to be done to further professionalize and ensure greater accountability of sheriffs.

Honourable Members,
Better access to justice means a better life for all. The justice system must be responsive to the needs of the people it serves, so that we are all truly equal before the law. We have made significant progress during the past financial year and with the support of this House we can continue to do so.

Siyaqhuba. Siyasebenza.

I thank you.