Honourable Minister Lamola,
Deputy Minister Holomisa
Everyone watching on various platforms,
As we celebrate Mandela Month in these trying times, we are reminded of his words that “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it”.
The Covid-19 pandemic is upon us and is having a serious impact on access to justice.
Covid-19 has claimed a judge, Judge Patrick Jaji of the Eastern Cape High Court, 4 permanent magistrates and 2 acting magistrates. It has also claimed the lives of 7 justice officials, 2 practitioners from Legal Aid South Africa and 2 members of the National Prosecuting Authority. I want to dedicate my Budget Vote speech to them.
We have to deliver justice in a South Africa where Covid-19 has become a reality.
Every day we have a number of magistrates and court staff who are not at work due to COVID infections or them being in isolation. Every day a number of court buildings or other facilities have to be closed to allow for full or partial decontamination. Today the figure for closures is in the region of 30.
Whenever a court is closed, arrangements are made to ensure that essential justice services can still be rendered. Remands being done in parking areas or under carports are becoming a new type of normal.
Even during the strictest period of lockdown our courts remained open for essential services such as hearing bail applications and Domestic Violence and Protection from Harassment orders.
Our main focus, at this point in time, is the optimal functioning of our courts and the justice system as well as the protection of human rights and vulnerable groups in times of Covid-19.
We are working closely with the key stakeholders in our Magistrates Courts – the Regional Court Presidents, the Chief Magistrates, the NPA, Legal Aid SA, the Department of Correctional Services and the SAPS to ensure that we finalise the maximum number of cases that we are able to during this period.
Our courts have to continue to function – they are essential services. They need to hear criminal matters, so that remand detainees who are found not guilty can be released from custody; to deal with civil disputes; to issue protection orders and to deal with urgent family law matters.
The silver lining of the COVID cloud is that we have been forced to move faster into the electronic communications age.
There is already a provision in the Criminal Procedure Act which allows witnesses to give evidence by way of electronic means. Apart from the witness testifying rooms in sexual offences courts, this is rarely used. This must change – one can just imagine how much time and expense will be saved if expert witnesses, such as doctors and other professionals, could give evidence remotely from their offices.
Because of a reduced number of staff and officials due to Covid-19 isolations, there is a bigger need to improve the ability of courts to work remotely by providing the necessary IT devices, equipment and data.
This includes the need to ensure that courts and judicial officers have the necessary tools of trade and equipment to enable remote testimony through audio-visual links or remote court appearances.
Currently, if courts are closed postponements have to be done without charge sheets and court books, yet judicial officers should be enabled to deal with postponements electronically through a Court Roll App with access to electronic charge sheets.
In addition, whilst the Minister’s Directions do provide for the use of electronic communications, looking in the longer term, legislation is required to allow courts to optimally operate in the virtual space and also to provide for e-justice systems to be fast-tracked.
These are just some of the practical challenges that we are grappling with on a daily basis in our courts and the adjusted budget that we are presenting today is crucial to our court operations.
In this revised budget an allocation of R334 million has been earmarked through savings for Covid-19 related expenditure such as PPE procurement and the decontamination of offices and justice service points.
There are many stakeholders in the justice chain. Parties to litigation cannot have their matters proceeded with if sheriffs are unable to serve court processes. The sheriffs’ profession, like so many other professions, have not been spared the devastating impact of Covid-19 - both in terms of income and service delivery.
We would like to convey our sincere appreciation to the South African Board for Sheriffs for making some of their reserve funds available to provide a form of once-off assistance to deputy sheriffs and to provide relief to some sheriffs who fall in a lower revenue stream in terms of their income.
The Minister’s Directions for the holding of sheriffs’ auctions will be gazetted soon. The advertisement of vacant offices of sheriffs countrywide was unfortunately delayed as the pandemic will also impact on the shortlisting and interview process of applicants by the nine advisory committees.
It is essential that we find creative ways, within the regulatory framework, to move forward to fill these vacancies. I will soon be meeting with the SABFS, the voluntary organisations representing the profession and the magistrates who chair the Advisory Committees to seek consensus on a uniform approach in this regard.
Covid-19 has an impact on people’s human rights – whether it’s freedom of movement, the right to a speedy trial or socio-economic rights. This brings with it an increased need to enhance access to justice, and to protect human rights and the rights of vulnerable groups.
I want to commend the South African Human Rights Commission for its work. Fortunately, in this Adjustments Appropriation Budget both the South African Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector have not had their budgets cut.
The Human Rights Commission has done important work in monitoring human rights abuses in this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, I want to make mention of the work being done by the Commission in respect of South Africa’s National Preventive Mechanism or NPM, which was established in terms of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and monitors all places where persons are deprived of their liberty - such as correctional centres, child and youth care centres, Secure Care Facilities, mental health institutions, immigration detention centres, police and military detention facilities. Earlier this week the NPM celebrated its first year of existence.
With regards to the work we are doing to combat and prevent human trafficking, our hard work had started to bear fruit as South Africa has recently been upgraded to Tier 2 on the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. The Report, whilst being compiled by one country and not by a multilateral forum, is currently the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-trafficking efforts.
Being upgraded to Tier 2 is a positive milestone and it shows what can be achieved when government successfully partners with civil society stakeholders.
Our courts are also imposing significant sentences in trafficking cases, with one accused being convicted and sentenced to 6 life sentences and an additional 129 years imprisonment, whilst in another matter the 2 accused were sentenced to 19 terms of life imprisonment.
We also work closely with civil society when it comes to the protection of the rights of LGBTI persons. Members will be familiar with the work of our National Task Team on LGBTI Rights which was hailed as an international best practice model by the United Nations.
The Task Team was originally established to deal with violence against LGBTI persons. As the National Council to Combat Gender-Based Violence and Femicide will be dealing with all forms of GBV it will also be looking at violence against LGBTI persons. We will therefore be engaging with our civil society partners to discuss the possibility of widening the mandate of the NTT to address problems with LGBTI people realising their rights more broadly.
Another fundamental human right is the right to privacy. The Protection of Personal Information Act gives effect to this right.
The Act has been put into operation incrementally, with a number of sections of the Act having been implemented in April 2014. Many of the remaining provisions of the Act could only be put into operation at a later stage as they require a state of operational readiness for the Information Regulator to assume its role.
The remaining sections of the Act - with the exception of 2 sections which apply to the Promotion of Access to Information Act - came into operation earlier this month.
These sections pertain to, amongst others, the conditions for the lawful processing of personal information, the prohibition of the processing of special personal information, procedures for dealing with complaints, provisions regulating to direct marketing by means of unsolicited electronic communication, and general enforcement. The 2 remaining sections will come into effect on 30 June next year.
Covid-19 is not the only challenge we face – budget cuts and financial constraints are another reality that we face daily. It has made existing challenges more pronounced and more immediate.
But these challenges are not insurmountable.
And as we celebrate Mandela Month, we are yet again reminded of his words when he said that –
“Those who are ready to join hands can overcome the greatest challenges.”
I thank you.