Deputy Speaker / Honourable House Chairperson,
Esteemed members of the judiciary,
Chair of the Portfolio Committee,
The Director-General and all other heads of entities within the Justice family,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The budget and the programme we present today underscore Government’s commitment to access to justice for all and the advancement of the Rule of Law.
Our Magistrates’ Courts and our magistrates have transformed dramatically since the dawn of democracy. Today, our Magistrates’ Courts are legitimate, accessible and serve everyone.
From formerly being public servants, today our magistrates are independent judicial officers and we are working towards amending the legislation and regulations that may still impede on their independence to further align the magistracy, as far as it is possible and feasible, with judges.
The Constitution 17th Amendment Act and the Superior Courts Act paved the way for the transformation of the magistracy and its full integration into the judiciary.
We are finalising a replacement Bill for the Magistrates Act of 1993 that will enable us to consult with the Chief Justice and other stakeholders, whilst a replacement Bill for the Magistrates’ Courts Act of 1944 is still work in progress.
There have been continuous engagements with the Lower Court Judiciary on some of the policy choices that must be incorporated into the proposed Bills.
Part of the legislative changes seek to streamline disciplinary processes in respect of magistrates. The Magistrates Act presently requires both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces to pass separate resolutions as to the removal or non-removal from office of magistrates. This can be problematic if the two Houses do not concur in their views on such a decision.
The view is held that there is no justification for a higher standard for the removal from office of magistrates, than that which is required for judges of the superior courts where the removal of a judge is confined to the National Assembly.
The same grounds for removal from judicial office set by the Constitution for judges are now also made applicable for the removal of magistrates.
I want to take the opportunity to formally bid farewell and to thank Judge President Legodi who served the Magistrates Commission as Chairperson with distinction for just over 8 years when his last term expired earlier this year.
The President, in consultation with the Chief Justice, appointed Deputy Judge President Ledwaba with effect from 1 April this year for a 5-year term, and we wish him well with this additional responsibility.
During 2018/19 the former Minister, after consultation with the Commission, appointed 176 Magistrates, 1 Regional Court President, 1 Chief Magistrate, 26 Senior Magistrates, and 46 Regional Magistrates. The Commission also advertised 249 posts of Magistrates and the recommendations of the Appointments Committee will serve before the full Commission later this month, now that both the NA and the NCOP have designated the 8 members of Parliament to serve on the Commission. These permanent appointments will further strengthen the work of the Judiciary.
It would be remiss of me not to convey our appreciation to the Commission in taking proactive steps in the filling of these as well as other vacancies that have since been advertised.
Where our magistracy was formerly overwhelmingly white and male, we have made significant inroads towards establishing a magistracy that truly reflect the demographics of our country.
As at May this year, we had 2007 magistrates across the country – 49% are African, 30% are White, 11% are Coloured, 10% are Indian – in other words, 70% of our magistracy are Black. In terms of gender, 46% are female.
The State of the Nation Address obliges us to commit ourselves to building a capable, ethical and developmental State. This includes well-functioning and accessible courts. The Chief Justice controls the judicial functions of the Superior and lower courts, whilst our Department continues to support the administration of the courts.
The Chief Justice’s Norms and Standards provide that the Chief Justice is responsible for the establishment and monitoring of norms and standards for the exercise of judicial functions of all courts. This consequently includes monitoring the performance of the courts.
The latest Victims of Crime Survey done by Stats SA shows that South Africans are less satisfied with the courts than they were last year.
When asked for the reasons as to why they were not satisfied with the performance of courts, many felt that matters dragged on for too long.
Which brings me to the issue of backlog courts: The number of outstanding and backlogs cases - i.e. those cases taking longer than 6 months in the district courts and longer than 9 months in the regional courts - are increasing in the lower courts. This leads to delays in the finalisation of cases and the increased overcrowding of prisons.
In this regard, it would be important to engage the judiciary on measures that we – the Department and the judiciary together, along with other role-players like the NPA, Legal Aid SA and the legal profession – could implement to raise confidence and trust amongst members of the public in our courts and to improve the optimal functioning of our courts.
We all have a role to play in making the courts work better and more efficiently.
We are therefore heartened that the OCJ has indicated that it will ensure strengthened and structured stakeholder dialogue and collaboration during the medium-term period.
This will be achieved through, amongst others, committees such as the National Efficiency Enhancement Committee (NEEC) and the Provincial Efficiency Enhancement Committees (PEECs), which contribute to enhanced efficiency in the performance of the courts.
Part of the reason for court backlogs are blockages in the system such as infrastructural challenges including power cuts, water shortages, equipment issues and so forth.
However, most disconcerting, is the lack of staff due to continuing budget cuts as a result of the fiscal constraints that we are facing as a country.
This impacts not only on our department, but also on the National Prosecuting Authority and Legal Aid SA – requiring our Department to then reprioritise its already-constrained budget to try and assist where we can.
Budget cuts have a negative impact on the filling of court-staff related vacancies. One of the measures we are currently investigating is the correct staff capacitation and placement in relation to the courts through an analysis of the workload and court staffing available.
Some courts are only sitting 1 or 2 hours per day – and this may require, for optimal efficiency, the combining of court rolls in a court centre. The functioning of periodical courts is also being looked at.
The National Development Plan urges us to build a society where all persons are and feel safe. This means that we need a criminal justice system that works – and works well.
Notwithstanding the challenges mentioned, the conviction rates of those cases that are enrolled in the lower courts are indicative of a functioning system:
As the Minister has indicated, the Department embarked on the rationalization of magisterial districts and aligning the jurisdiction of magistrates’ courts with municipal and provincial boundaries so that communities can obtain legal redress and access justice services nearer to where they live. All provinces have been aligned, with the exception of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape*1 and KwaZulu-Natal, where consultative processes are still ongoing. The aim is to finalise this during the current year. With regards to alignment of magisterial districts with High Courts, the alignment of divisions of High Courts with Provinces for Gauteng, North-West and Limpopo, were completed.
The South African Judicial Education Institute was established in order to promote the independence, dignity and effectiveness of the courts through continuing judicial education.
In responding to the goal of the OCJ for improved administrative and technical support to the Judiciary which contributes to ensuring an efficient court system, the OCJ continues to provide support to SAJEI with the facilitation of 142 judicial education training courses, covering over 3 000 delegates in the period under review.
The training courses conducted included court annexed mediation, case management, children’s court skills, criminal court skills, family court skills, civil court skills, competition law, maritime law, judicial management and judicial ethics as well as environmental crimes.
These training courses are crucial in that they contribute to the provision of quality justice for all. SAJEI has also contributed to judicial training in the SADC region.
Further to these reported achievements, during the 2019/20 financial year, as targeted in the APP, SAJEI will facilitate at total of 80 judicial education courses and will also be training 249 newly appointed District Magistrates.
We must capacitate SAJEI to ensure that it can continue to deliver on its mandate as articulated in the NDP.
Justice means making sure that people are heard when they go to court.
Justice means giving people hope in the belief that they will be treated fairly and reasonably and with dignity.
Justice means the protection of rights and the conviction of wrongs.
Our Magistrates’ Courts continue to be the first port of call for access to justice for most people - with over 700 court houses countrywide. For this reason, we meet regularly with the Regional Court Presidents Forum and the Chief Magistrates Forum and we thank them for the good working relationship that exists between the magistracy and the Department.
Seventy seven (77) of our Magistrates are serving as Commissioners in our Small Claims Courts. These magistrates offer their time and expertise, free of charge, and after hours, to assist in this important task.
This assists us immensely, particularly in small or rural areas where, were it not for a Magistrate serving as a Commissioner, we would possibly not have been able to have a functioning Small Claims Court there.
For a court to render a service it must be supported by judicial officers who are committed to serve the public and the cause of justice – in particular the needs of the poor and most vulnerable.
Often our magistrates are the very face of the law and our Magistrates’ Courts are at the forefront of people’s interaction with the law and the justice system.
We are unwavering in our commitment to support and capacitate these courts.
*1 "Western Cape" added on 23 Jul 2019