Outstanding judgments worry chief justice
WHAT was to be done about the “embarrassing” number of outstanding judgments in the North Gauteng High Court was one of the questions candidates hoping to be its deputy judge president were grilled on extensively yesterday.
In June, four judges — all from the Pretoria court, SA’s busiest — will face a judicial conduct tribunal for alleged gross misconduct because of outstanding judgments.
There have been horror stories in the press, such as the judgment that took six years to deliver and the litigant had died before it was handed down — a story Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng referred to twice in the interviews.
The Judicial Service Commission is meeting in Cape Town this week to interview candidates for the Supreme Court of Appeal and various high courts. All three candidates — judges Aubrey Ledwaba, Letty Molopa-Sethosa and Cynthia Pretorius — readily agreed that it was a very serious problem.
But that answer did not satisfy some commissioners, who wanted candidates to show they had thought about the problem and had ideas on how to rectify it. “If you want to be a leader, I’d expect you to help with ideas,” said Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo to Judge Molopa-Sethosa.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng asked: “Why is it always the same people? Judgments are reserved three years, four years, five years; same people. And we’re not talking about two judgments, we’re talking about anything between five and 15 judgments or even more. Why?”
Judge Mlambo said it was also those judges who had many partheard trials who had reserved judgments. Thus, despite having a lighter workload, they still could not get their judgments finished.
Judge Ledwaba said each week candidates had to forward a list of judgments they had reserved, and referred to an idea for a “name and shame” system, where the names of recalcitrant judges would be put up in the judges’ tea room.
He said where judges fell behind because they wanted to be “out of the division”, there needed to be “serious confrontation”.
Judge Molopa-Sethosa said she would talk to the offending judges individually and find out what was going on. She had had a reserved judgment that she could not get to, and as the work piled up, she was eventually reprimanded in 2011. She always used herself as an example when warning junior judges of what to avoid, she said.
Judge Pretorius, who sits on the JSC’s judicial conduct subcommittee, said it was “embarrassing” when the North Gauteng High Court was always the one that had outstanding judgments. She said Judge Mlambo had brought in a system, which she thought would bear fruit, adding that judges were too polite in meetings and had to “take on all these challenges head on”.
Judge Mlambo asked the candidates about the finalisation rate for circuit courts — the courts that travel to rural areas and small towns — saying the rate had dropped “drastically” by about 60%. But when he had surprised judges on circuit duty by just “rocking up there”, it sometimes happened that the judge was “nowhere to be found”.
He asked Judge Pretorius if a circuit court case collapsed on Monday, whether the judge had a duty to inform the judge president or whether he could just “lie low”.
Judge Pretorius said judges should offer themselves for duty.
Justice Mogoeng put it to Judge Molopa-Sethosa this way: “Do the words ‘circuit court’, ‘Wednesday’ and ‘golf’ mean anything to you?” She said no, but she could not answer for any others.