KILLER VIRUS CAUSES JUSTICE TO SLOW DOWN
FOR the past two decades and then some, the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, has been my second home where I gossiped in the corridors with the legal fraternity and got many news tips. But this all changed overnight. Today is the start of the urgent court week. No matter that the court is in the Easter recess, court is at any given time a buzz of activity. Especially at the start of urgent court week. But not this week.
In terms of directives issued by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, in light of Covid-19, access to the courts is restricted to persons having a material interest in a case. The directive stipulates these will be litigants, accused, witnesses and those who may need to provide support such as accompanying child-victims. And the media. The chief justice has always been very aware of the importance that the public should be informed about what happens in our courts.
But these are extraordinary times and visitors who are not material to the case will only be allowed into the court with the permission of the head of court.
This has placed an enormous burden on the poor security staff, who have to figure out who may be allowed in and who not. Not an easy task at all if confronted with irritated legal eagles and members of the general public.
While no measures for a court lockdown has been announced to date, it could be on the cards in the near future as another measure to curb the infection rate of Covid-19.
The public may be barred, but there can never be a total lockdown as especially urgent applications involving children will have to be adjudicated.
While both Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Chief Justice Mogoeng have urged that non essential cases be postponed, it is probably the prisoners awaiting trial who will suffer the most. Some have been waiting for months, if not more than a year, for their day in court.
Correctional Services is taking special precautions to prevent infection among its 163 000 prisoners.
All prison visits have been suspended until April 15 and courts are directed to postpone criminal trials for the time being.
Yes, this will undoubtedly cause an enormous backlog which will take months, perhaps even years, to clear but we have to understand the context of these times, and that preventing the spread of this virus is the most important thing right now.
There is a famous saying that justice delayed is justice denied, but the counter argument is that the wheels of justice do turn – although in many instances – very slowly.
One person who can attest to this, is former South African National Defence Force member Mozamane Maswanganyi. He was arrested in 2010 on a charge of rape. Four years later, he was imprisoned for life following his conviction.
In 2015 his conviction and sentence were overturned on appeal and he was released from prison. But the problem was that the SANDF had already fired him.
The Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein agreed with the SANDF that it was within its rights to do so.
But a decade after his arrest, Maswanganyi eventually received the justice he had been fighting for, when the Constitutional Court overturned his dismissal.
With the bitter comes the sweet, as the SANDF will now have to pay his salary backdated from July 18, 2014 – from the day when he was convicted and fired.
He is lucky his case is resolved; others will just have to wait. I will miss my daily visits to the court but we must all do our bit. If we all do our part in following the rules, we can hopefully avert a crisis. It is up to us.