‘ Virtual court sittings’ on cards
THE Government has gazetted the Judicial Laws Amendment (ease of settling commercial and other disputes) Bill that is meant to establish specialised divisions of the courts to electronically expedite justice delivery and promote the ease of access to justice.
In terms of the Bill, there is a clause which seeks to amend certain sections of the High Court Act, Magistrates’ Courts Act and the Small Claims Courts to enable provision to be made by rules of court for “virtual sittings” at which all or any of the parties to a civil suit may, by mutual agreement, participate in sittings of the court by electronic means.
“The purpose of this Bill is to amend the High Court Act [Chapter 7:06], the Magistrates’ Courts Act [Chapter7:10] and the Small Claims Courts Act [Chapter 7:12]; with a view to speeding up and otherwise facilitating the settlement of certain suits or actions, especially suits or actions of a commercial nature,” reads part of the Bill.
The specialised courts will enable rules to be made for such matters as the electronic service of process, the electronic authentication of court documents, and electronic access to records filed with the Registrar of the High Court or clerk of court.
The Bill provides that the parties concerned must consent to their proceedings being conducted by way of a virtual sitting.
The rules of court for virtual sittings apply only to civil proceedings and not to criminal proceedings, except in such circumstances and subject to such conditions as may be specified by or under the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act. By means of this amendment to the jurisdiction section of the Magistrates’ Court Act, magistrate’s courts are in certain circumstances given original jurisdiction over commercial disputes even if the value of such disputes would otherwise exceed their monetary jurisdiction.
The amendment provides that parties to a suit involving a commercial dispute must, in the first instance, have their suit determined by a magistrate’s court in that province, if both of the parties reside, conduct business or are employed in the same province, unless the parties opt to have the dispute determined by the High Court.
Presently, the magistrates’ courts have no jurisdiction to award specific performance without the option of damages or to grant provisional sentence in claims for liquidated debts.
There is a clause that seeks to give such jurisdiction to magistrate’s courts in claims of a business character.
The effect of the Bill amending the Small Claims Court Act is that all magistrates’ courts will become small claims courts within their area of jurisdiction.
The Small Claims Court Act was enacted in 1992 to expedite the adjudication of small civil claims at minimal cost to the parties involved.
The specialised divisions of the High Court may be created to specialise in the adjudication of cases in the field of commercial law, family law, mining law, electoral law, revenue law, the law of deceased and insolvent estates or any other specialised field of law. — @mashnets