Thirty years into a democratic dispensation, South Africa’s Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has managed to iron out one of the biggest challenges users of the country’s Magistrates’ Courts have previously highlighted as a problem in the system.
This was according to a recently released report commissioned and published by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) – one of the continent’s leading research centres, specialising in judicial governance. The unit is based in UCT’s Department of Public Law and its main focus is to support judicial governance and provide free access to legal resources in Africa.
The DGRU’s latest report is titled Isidima – Magistrates’ Court Users Survey Report 2023, and foregrounds the perspectives of ordinary South Africans who regularly access the Magistrates’ Court system. The report reveals some reassuring results. Respondents no longer feel disrespected or discriminated against based on their race, gender or ethnicity, and feel that they are always treated fairly when accessing this court system. The research surveyed six courts in rural and urban districts in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, and 933 court users participated in the study.
Isidima is one of three reports commissioned and published by the DGRU over the past four years. The second iteration of the first study on magistrates’ perceptions of their work environment, titled: The Magistracy After COVID-19, incorporated the views and opinions of 230 magistrates from across the country. Common themes in this report included their heavy caseload, concerns for their safety and security, and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the system.
“The DGRU set off on this research expedition to better understand trends in the South African judiciary over the past 15 years – especially in the lower courts, because not much attention has been given to these courts, so there’s no real research available,” said co-researcher Zikhona Ndlebe.
First of its kind
Speaking to UCT News following publication of the report, Ndlebe said Magistrates’ Courts play a fundamental role in ordinary South Africans’ lives. And because most South Africans first encounter the justice system via these courts, it was important to understand how they experience the system.
“It’s very important that we give more attention to lower courts, so that the system can be improved for the benefit of judicial officers and court users.”
“We also know that a large number of lower court users are the poorest of the poor, and the most vulnerable members of our society. So we needed to understand what’s working and what’s not working,” she said. “It’s very important that we give more attention to lower courts, so that the system can be improved for the benefit of judicial officers and court users.”
Isidima is a first of its kind for South Africa, and highlights not only users’ positive experiences but several drawbacks in the system as well. Further, it offers a set of tips and guidelines that can easily be implemented to improve how these courts operate.
Reassuringly, Ndlebe said, according to their research results, one of the biggest challenges court users previously highlighted as a problem has largely been resolved: the disrespectful manner in which they were treated in court.
“We are pleased to report that nine out of 10 participants who were part of this research project said that they are treated with dignity and respect when accessing the court system,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean that participants reported zero flaws in the system. On the contrary, she said, court users highlighted unnecessary delays in the system and frequent returns to court as two of their biggest frustrations. Such delays, she explained, are often caused by missing dockets and court files, or unavailable witnesses. A large number of participants said they were aware of incidents of sexual harassment and physical assault that continue to plague the system, and “undermine[s] the perception that courts are places of safety”. Further, a substantial number of participants reported cases of bribery and corruption.
“About 94% of participants said they have never been bribed and haven’t seen anyone receive a bribe either. However, 6% of those interviewed said they were bribed in the past and know someone who’s been bribed. And 43% of bribe requests came from the South African Police Service, 14% from lawyers and clerks, and 13% of bribes were from prosecutors,” Ndlebe said.
A step in the right direction
While the report’s findings indicate that Magistrates’ Courts are moving in the right direction as they service South Africans across the country, there’s still work to be done.
“If [the] recommendations made in the report are to be implemented, justice will under no circumstances be delayed or denied, in any form.”
Since its release, the report has been brought to the attention of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, and the DGRU has suggested tangible techniques to mitigate these drawbacks in the future. These corrective measures, Ndlebe said, include introducing an online court system to reduce the number of case postponements and delays; providing continuous training to permanent and acting magistrates; and ensuring that the court has a sexual harassment policy in place that applies to everyone who works in the system.
“If [the] recommendations made in the report are to be implemented, justice will under no circumstances be delayed or denied, in any form or manner,” she said. “Thankfully, the Isidima report reveals that fundamental constitutional imperatives of equality and dignity have been achieved and are upheld in our courts, because race and gender don’t affect how users are treated. And that’s reassuring, and deserves to be celebrated.”
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