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Keynote Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at the 2020 Training Programme for Newly Appointed District Court Magistrates, hosted by the South African Judicial Education Institute, held at the Misty Hills Hotel, 2 February 2020

Programme Director, Mr Krieling,
The Chairperson of the Magistrates Commission, Deputy Judge President Ledwaba,
The Chief Executive Officer of SAJEI, Dr Gomolemo Moshoeu,
Chief Magistrates present,
The Regional Head for Gauteng and current Acting Deputy Director-General: Court Services, Mr T Malema,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon and welcome - a warm welcome not only to this training programme, but also welcome to the magistracy.

This is, I believe, the biggest intake of newly appointed magistrates, with more than 200 new appointees. The appointments are an important step in capacitating our courts, so as to enable them to deliver justice to all.

As you know, the Magistrates Commission plays an important role in the filling of vacancies of magistrates’ posts.

The appointment procedures and processes, which are set out in legislation and accompanying Regulations, are lengthy and detailed.

Vacancies are identified and confirmed, advertisements are placed, applications are processed and then the shortlisting is done. Interviews are then held, where after recommendations are made by the Commission and submitted to the Minister of Justice for consideration and appointment.

I want to thank Deputy Judge President Ledwaba and the Commission for their efforts during the appointment processes. Having to interview over 600 candidates over a two month period is no small feat. 

The Commission submitted its recommendations regarding suitable candidates to the Minister in September 2019 and over 200 new Magistrates’ appointments have been made by the Minister.

A fully transformed judiciary is a constitutional imperative and the new appointments will go a long way in further transforming our magistracy to reflect the demographics of our country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You enter the magistracy at a time when our country is facing severe economic and other challenges. 

Over the past few years, serious violent crime has remained high, the public’s feelings of safety and confidence in the criminal justice system have declined, and endemic corruption in the public and private sectors has been exposed.

It affects everyone, but especially vulnerable groups such as women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities.  The Declaration of the Presidential Summit against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide and the Emergency Response Action Plan flowing from it are being implemented to combat and prevent gender-based violence and femicide.

The various commissions of inquiry that were set up in recent years - including the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture - shows a commitment by Government to turning the situation around. But there is still much to be done. 

The state of our criminal justice system requires that we all do our utmost to ensure efficiency in the system and that the highest professional standards are upheld.   We all have a role to play in this regard.

Strengthening the rule of law through a functioning criminal justice system is necessary for economic progress and development and is critical in order to build safer communities.

Our judicial officers are vital to the rule of law. And that is why they should be held to the highest standards of conduct and ethics.

Over the last few months, some of our magistrates have been in the public spotlight – for all the wrong reasons. 

We have also noticed an increasing number of serious complaints raised against magistrates at all levels - from Magistrate, to Senior Magistrate, to Chief Magistrate, to Regional Magistrate and Regional Court President – which impacts on people’s trust and confidence in the criminal justice system and specifically on the credibility of the magistracy. 

I have stated publically, and I want to reiterate, that I am extremely concerned about the amount of time it is taking to complete some of these investigations.

The public expect the highest standards of conduct from judicial officers in our courts and it is in the Magistrates’ Courts that the vast majority of South Africans access justice.

That’s why the public’s perception of the magistracy ultimately affects their confidence in the justice system as a whole.

The findings of a recent survey by Afrobarometer - which indicates that the number of people in South Africa who are of the view that “most or all” judges and magistrates are involved in corruption has doubled from 2002 (15%) to 2018 (32%) - are very disconcerting.

The public and the media not only scrutinize the judgments and the conduct of magistrates in their courts, but also during the interview process.

Some of you may have seen a recent article which reported on interviews with 88 applicants for vacancies in regional magistrates’ posts and purports an alleged lack of knowledge, amongst some of the applicants, of the laws around rape. The article discusses the views of advocacy group, Judges Matter, who had sat in on the interviews.

I did reply to the article and I stressed that it is important to distinguish between legitimate criticism of how certain individual candidates fared in the interviews, on the one hand, and painting the entire magistracy with the same brush, on the other. 

We have approximately 367 regional court magistrates and 1366 district court magistrates, excluding the acting magistrates.

Our regional courts hear serious matters every day and our High Courts are generally confirming regional court judgments and sentences on reviews and appeals, thus indicating that our regional courts function well.

Yet, at the same time, in supporting our courts, we need to continuously strengthen recruitment and selection processes. One way of doing this is by making processes more transparent and advocacy groups, academic institutions, civil society and the media all have a vital role to play.

Bodies such as Judges Matter makes the recruitment processes even more transparent as it allows the media and the public greater access.

Judges Matter has only recently started monitoring the interviews of magistrates and we believe that their involvement will enhance transparency even more.

Greater transparency also means closer scrutiny of candidates. Those who avail themselves and appear ill-prepared carry the risk of harm to the magistracy and the courts. Being ill-prepared for interviews or availing oneself when one is not yet ready for judicial or higher office diminishes the public perception of magistrates and therefore any concerns raised by civil society should be seen as part of our attempts to strengthen our magistracy.

Where candidates fall short, they are not recommended for appointment. The public can therefore rest assured that where there are displays of ineptitude or a lack of ability, appointments are not made. 

Proper training is also critical.  As you are aware, the amended regulations for Judicial Officer in the Lower Courts came into operation in September 2018 and have done away with the requirement of the “probation period” of at least six months. 

You are the first group of entry-level magistrates that will no longer be subjected to serving the “probation period”.  

Not having a probation period, means that training and peer review and oversight become all the more important. That is why new appointees are required to first attend a training course, as determined by SAJEI, before commencing with the functions of a judicial officer.

Government and the judiciary support the ongoing training for all ranks of magistrates and judges and view it is as essential.

Programme Director,

A matter which we view as extremely important is that of court performance and we closely monitor the number of outstanding and backlog cases - i.e. those cases taking longer than 6 months in the district courts and longer than 9 months in the regional courts.

Our Department also compiles Regional Intervention Risk Reports which are sent to the respective regional offices to assist them in considering interventions where required.

At the end of December 2019 the district courts had 24 807 backlog cases (that is cases longer than 6 months on the district court rolls) against all outstanding district court cases (i.e. open cases not finalised) totalling 133 806 cases; whilst the regional courts had 27 038 backlog cases (that is cases longer than 9 months on the regional court rolls) against all outstanding regional district court cases, totalling 41 985 cases. 

This means that, in total, for the lower courts we have 29,5% backlog cases.

To give you an idea, when it comes to the number of criminal cases on the backlog roll in lower courts, the provinces with the highest percentage of backlog matters in district courts are the Western Cape at 24%, the Eastern Cape with 22% and Limpopo at 20%.

We closely monitor the backlog turnaround times as well as the top 20 courts with more than 24 months backlog matters.

Worrying aspects include cases sitting in the district courts for more than a year before going to a regional court, backlogs, a decline in the number of trials in the district courts, and prison overcrowding. 

In this regard we had, as at the end of November 2019, just over 46 000 persons incarcerated as remand detainees.

These are all persons who are still presumed to be innocent, as their cases have not been concluded and they have not been convicted; yet some have been there for up to 6, 7 or even 8 years - and notwithstanding case flow management powers being in the hands of the magistracy, postponement after postponement is still taking place without prioritising such matters.   Can we then really say justice is being done or being seen to be done?

In February 2014 the Chief Justice issued Norms and Standards for the performance of Judicial Functions that are binding to all judicial officers and apply to all courts in South Africa.

The Norms and Standard place a responsibility on the heads of the various courts to manage judicial functions and ensure that that all judicial officers perform their judicial functions effectively.  

It further states that all judicial officers should strive for, and adhere to, a high level of competence and excellence and to this end they are encouraged to participate in regular training under the auspices of SAJEI.  

In respect of court hours it provides that all trial courts should aim to sit for a maximum of 4,5 hours per day and judicial officers should strictly comply with court hours - save where, for good reason, this cannot be done.

Where a roll collapses, the judicial officer should make him- or herself available to be allocated other work by the Head of Court or a designated officer. I trust that you all have been, or will be, issued with the directive by the Chief Justice on the Norms and Standards.

It is important that we continue 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 heartened that the Office of the Chief Justice 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), the Provincial Efficiency Enhancement Committees (PEECs) and the District Efficiency Enhancement Committees (DEECs), which all contribute to enhanced efficiency in the performance of the courts and ensuring that interventions are sought to address blockages across the CJS value chain. 

This is important because a significant 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.  These blockages also impact on court hours – something we are extremely concerned about as our courts, in general, sit less than 3:30 a day, in other words lower than the Norms and Standards set by the Chief Justice.

More postponements and less court productivity lead to justice being delayed and this impacts on the service delivery our communities expect from all of us.

The delays impact 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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want to wish you all the very best – for the remainder of this important training course and also as you embark on this new and exciting chapter of your careers.

I also want to thank SAJEI and Dr Moshoeu for their continued hard work and support of our judicial officers and our courts.

I would also like to extend our sincere appreciation to all the judicial officers who are involved not only with the training programmes under the auspices of SAJEI, but also in the day-to-day, in-house, training and guidance to magistrates.

Statistics South Africa released its Governance, Public Safety and Justice Survey last year and some of the figures paint an interesting picture.

Only about 57% of the general population believed that in South Africa, people are treated equally by the police and in courts of law – yet over 82% of the population who had actually been to courts believed that they were treated fairly by court officials, including the magistrate or judge and the prosecutor.

What this tells us is that there may well be a discrepancy between, on the one hand, the public’s perception of our courts and, on the other hand, their actual experiences in the courts.

It also tells us that all of us need to do more to enhance the public’s perceptions of our courts and the justice system.

It’s in our Magistrates Courts where most of our people encounter the justice system – and therefore, for many, the Magistrates Courts embody the justice system as a whole.

Therefore, if the Magistrates Courts work, the public believe the justice system works.

In November last year Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the 17th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture and he said:

“Anybody with a functional conscience must seek to identify his or her responsibilities as contained in our Constitution.

If you are indifferent because you occupy a position that pays you well, if you are indifferent to the plight of the people in Diepsloot and elsewhere in the country because you are comfortable, you live in a suburb, know that you are a traitor; and you are a traitor of our Constitution.

This is so because the Constitution places a responsibility on each and every one of us, regardless of age to contribute towards ending the injustices of our past.”

The work of a judicial officer can be difficult at times. Sometimes you will have to work with challenging cases and under trying conditions, but you are expected to administer fair and equal justice to all, to the best of your ability.

We owe it to the people of our country.

I thank you.