Strike by magistrates illegal - ministry

2013-03-19 07:47
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Johannesburg - The strike by magistrates on Monday was illegal, according to the justice ministry.

"Their actions amount to misconduct, as they postponed cases without a valid reason which is unlawful and flies against their oath of office," spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga said.

"[Justice Minister Jeff Radebe] wrote to Joasa [the Judicial Officers' Association of SA] over the weekend asking them to reconsider their aggressive stance which is illegal, but [they] have yet to respond."

Mhaga said Joasa's actions undermined a basic human right of access to justice and compromised proper administration of justice, especially during human rights month.

Misconduct

"The minister will impress on the Magistrates' Commission to initiate misconduct disciplinary action against those members who unlawfully postponed cases set down for trial," he said.

"This action may lead to their impeachment by Parliament."

Mhaga said the ministry wanted to emphasise that the strike was illegal and that this was why the decision was made to take disciplinary action against them.

He said courts had functioned normally in all provinces with no disruptions. The only exceptions were in East London and two courts in KwaZulu-Natal, where cases had been postponed.

"We are busy collating information to ensure that we assign acting magistrates in affected [courts]. Other legal services have not been affected. In all, there was minimal disruption."

'Out of touch'

Earlier on Monday, Joasa said the ministry was out of touch with the problems confronting magistrates in lower courts and was not taking their salary demands seriously.

As a result, magistrates had reached the point of opting for strike action.

"[It] is quite embarrassing for us to do this," said Joasa president Nazeem Joemath.

"The fact of the matter is nobody listens. The ministry of justice is out of touch.... I'm really stunned by the department's attitude."

Joemath said the 5.5% salary increase recently approved by the department had nothing to do with the matter.

The increase was rejected by Joasa and the Association of Regional Court Magistrates of Southern Africa (Armsa).

"They've [the justice department] been making it in the media that we are unhappy with 5.5%," said Joemath.

"They are shifting the actual question. It has taken the magistrate from being the victim to the villain."

Joemath said all Joasa and Armsa were looking for were the same salaries, benefits and service conditions as other judges within the confines of the sliding scale.

The point of contention stemmed from recommendations made to the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers (ICR) in 2008.

This related to salaries for magistrates and judges at all court levels, including the Constitutional Court.

It was recommended that salaries be adjusted to a three percent sliding scale.

Sliding scale

The Chief Justice's salary was planned to be the anchor to work downwards from, in line with the imperative of establishing a single justice system.

However, Joemath said this scale took place only within the high courts. Lower court salaries continued to be adjusted year-on-year, similar to those of other public servants.

Joemath said that in 2008, magistrates earned 47% of what the chief justice earned. In 2011, that figure had shrunk to 30%.

He said if the recommendations had been implemented in 2008, magistrates would be earning approximately double what they were earning now.

Both Joasa and Armsa had approached the legislative branch after the implementation was approved by President Jacob Zuma in 2010.

After the National Council of Provinces had studied the recommendations, it agreed with Joasa and Armsa that the sliding scale be introduced across the board in 2008.

"[However] when we went to the justice portfolio committee to brief them, it doesn't matter how good your argument is as the decision has been already made," said Joemath.

"When we called for the strike, we thought we were going to get engagement, which has not taken place. Magistrates are demoralised and disillusioned."

Arguments in the IRC matter had already been presented in the Constitutional Court, where judgment was reserved.

Despite Joemath's comments and a planned strike by magistrates, courts around the country were said to be operating as usual on Monday.

- SAPA
Read more on:    strikes  |  judiciary
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