Agoraphobic: women in bid to avoid court because of fear of public spaces

2010-05-10 00:00

PRETORIA — An unusual legal conundrum involving agoraphobia (fear of public spaces), which has never come up in a South African court before, is now in the hands of Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo.

Sharon Jesse of Westville is involved in a civil suit against the eThekwini municipality. The details of the case are not mentioned in the court papers she submitted to Ngcobo at the Constitutional Court on Friday.

What is relevant though, according to Jesse, is the fact that she is agoraphobic and has been diagnosed as such.

“I haven’t left my house in two years, except for the times when I was forced to do so. I’m not capable of moving around in public and I can’t speak in public either.”

Nevertheless, the magistrate presiding over the case between her and the municipality has refused to let Jesse’s husband appear in court in her place.

She has now asked Ngcobo for leave to appeal this order by the magistrate, since it directly affects her right to a fair trial.

Professor Tom Coetzee, a criminal law expert from Potchefstroom, said this is “a truly unique case in South African legal history”.

“A basic principle of the legal system is that any party to a case must appear in court in person and also testify and respond to cross-examination in person.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you how this issue should be handled, since it has never before been a factor in a trial. All I can say is that if the chief justice applies the basic principles of our legal system, Jesse will either have to testify in person or drop the case.”

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