Conversations with leaders
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery talks about expanding citizens’ access to the justice system
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery explains the multi-pronged effort the department is making
to expand citizens' access to the justice system.
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery says the thing he loves most about his job is being given the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives through justice.
“Justice really is the key that unlocks all the other rights in the Constitution. Often people don't know their rights or they don't know how to enforce their rights – that's where justice plays a pivotal role.”
Deputy Minister Jeffery, who holds two law degrees and is an admitted attorney, adds that some of the things that his department has done includes building a new high court in Limpopo and renovating and refurbishing other courts around the country to ensure everyone has access to justice.
Small Claims make a difference
The creation and rollout of Small Claims Courts across the country has been one of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development's flagship projects. It has achieved nearly 100 per cent coverage countrywide, which means that there is a functioning Small Claims Court in every magisterial district in South Africa.
“These courts help people to access the justice system without the need of a lawyer and the service is rendered free of charge.”
The aim of the Small Claims Court is to make justice inexpensive and accessible to those who cannot afford court fees.The maximum claim that can be brought to the court is R15 000. Use of these courts has increased.
“We also run various awareness programmes and
community outreach events to alert communities of their legal rights and how to access justice services.”
Deputy Minister Jeffery said his department also runs various programmes that create constitutional awareness and human rights.
He said the department's Public Education and Communication (PEC) section is responsible for providing public education and liaison services.
The PEC develops and updates comprehensive communication activities, both nationally and provincially, for continuous public awareness campaigns. Working with the Government Communication and Information System, the department's various regional offices and other role players such as the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the South African Human Rights Commission and Legal Aid South Africa ensure that communities know their rights and know how to access and enforce them.
Reducing backlog of cases
Deputy Minister Jeffery said various factors contribute to the backlog of cases. Causes include the nonattendance of court proceedings by the accused and witnesses. He explained that, on average, courts issue about 15 000 warrants of arrest a month due to nonattendance.
Other factors include incomplete investigations causing unnecessary delays and forensic analysis taking a long time.
“Not enough court capacity to deal with all the incoming cases and lack of sufficient numbers of judges, magistrates, prosecutors and legal aid representatives along with the availability of legal representation on trial dates remains a challenge.”
Additional capacity was created to deal with the workload at court level, the deputy minister said. “This is done as part of a comprehensive approach to rationalise the courts and improve their efficiency.”
He also said the Office of the Chief Justice now controls case-flow management at national and provincial level.
“The judiciary has embarked on improving the effectiveness of the courts through judicial leadership in case-flow management and the development of norms and standards for courts that have been gazetted and apply to all judicial officers.”
The Chief Justice has established a national and nine provincial efficiency enhancement committees, which include all criminal justice stakeholders, to help oversee court performance.
“We have created more magistrate and court administration support posts in the past few years and also accelerated the filling of vacant magistrates' posts.
“We have also, in conjunction with the Magistrate's Commission, embarked on improving the processes relating to the filling of vacancies from the advertisement stage and interviews to appointment.The creation and filling of regional court magistrates' posts is further being prioritised.”
In addition to the normal permanent court capacity, the department has also created additional backlog courts staffed by contract magistrates, prosecutors, administrative staff and legal aid representatives.
To deal with large numbers of outstanding cases that had existed for long periods of time, resources were allocated to centres where a specific need had been identified.
“This has been very successful in addressing and stabilising the backlog situation at many courts.At present we have 48 additional backlog courts that are providing additional capacity to deal with the workload.
“They comprise of 26 regional and 22 district backlog courts that are operational. In order to sustain this initiative we have, as part of our strategic approach, aimed to convert these backlog courts into permanent courts where required.”
He said in this regard 40 regional backlog courts
have been approved for conversion to permanent courts and 32 courts have already been converted, with others being considered.
Other measures that have been put in place to help deal with case backlogs include the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms (ADRM).
“The use of ADRM by the NPA to finalise cases has ensured fewer cases need to be dealt with at trials. The use has also increased owing to more accused successfully completing diversion programmes – both children and adults – and more suitable cases being identified for informal mediation.”
Deputy Minister Jeffery said that Legal Aid SA does not have sufficient staff capacity to provide a practitioner to cover every court on a daily basis.
“Based on the demand generated at each court room, they have now aligned their supply of practitioners to the needs of each court room. In this way it is ensured that we are able to utilise legal aid practitioners more optimally, whilst at the same time responding better to the demands for legal aid services at court level.”
In addition, during the second half of the last financial year, the Board of Legal Aid SA approved the implementation of a limited court relief programme at 33 justice centres to ensure relief when practitioners were not available.
Tackling hate crimes and hate speech
Minister Jeffery said the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill is controversial.
“A hate crime bill has been in the pipeline for some time. What the bill does is take existing crimes and elevate them to make them more serious, as hate crimes. The example I like to use is that if you currently throw a brick at a mosque it will be malicious injury to property.
“But if it can be proved that you threw the brick at the mosque because you don't like Muslims then it can be taken more serious and can be seen as a hate crime. We have been working on this from some time.”
He said the hate speech element came through after the start of racist and offensive postings on social media.
“The bill has an exemption for art and expression, as long as it's not incitement to violence.You can be a comedian but if you, for example, start inciting attacks on a specific group of people then it could be viewed as hate speech.”
Deputy Minister Jeffery said when implementing the law it will require informing members of the public about its provisions.
“It's a criminal act so it will be up to the police and the prosecution authority to implement it.”
“At present we have 48 additional backlog courts that are providing additional capacity to deal with the
Writer: Noluthando Motswai