Courts going down the toilet

2010-11-20 14:54

A copy of the Constitution was used as toilet paper in one of South Africa’s dirty, paperless court toilets.

This disdain for the rule of law was reported on Constitutionally Speaking, a blog run by Cape Town constitutional expert Pierre de Vos.

Jacques Jansen, the blogger who witnessed the smelly desecration of the Constitution, was spending his penny in the public debate on the conditions at the South Gauteng High Court, widely regarded as South Africa’s worst judicial hellhole.

The debate – sparked by Justice spokesperson Tlali Tlali’s dismissive public reply to Judge Neels Claassen’s plea for a properly stocked and managed South Gauteng High Court library – has been raging in legal circles for weeks.

South Gauteng High Court is but one of a number of courts whose conditions have been heading steadily in the direction of disaster.

Last week at the yearly meeting of the Northern Provinces Law Society, Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo added his voice to the ­debate when he announced a range of plans to reform South Africa’s justice system.

Ngcobo did not refer to the court toilet-paper problem, but, unlike Tlali, he did seem to take the library problem seriously.

A task team, he said, had been set up to review library facilities of high courts to ensure “that they are both adequately resourced and ­efficiently managed”.

Lack of toilet paper, stinking ­toilets, dirty or vandalised wash basins and a lack of locks on doors are features of a sizeable number of court buildings in South Africa.

“It is regrettable that we are ­expected to serve under these abhorrent conditions,” stated Jansen.

“I’ve literally witnessed the remains of our Constitution (the small, free, bound copy) on a toilet floor (in a court building) after someone had used it to literally wipe his ass.”

Jansen’s fellow bloggers were as dismissive of conditions in court as he was.

Blogger Mlungisi Mabuza stated: “I can’t help but get furious when I read the remarks by the paper pusher called Tlali Tlali, whose ­ignorance of the difficulty we as legal practitioners face in that darn court demonstrates that he is most probably as incompetent as the rest of his government crew.

“Tlali, we are the ones who bear the frustration of having to deal with missing court files, incompetent service staff, non-functional lifts, outdated library, stuffy court rooms, and so on. If you can stop digging your nose and come over here to see what we are talking about you might be a better idiot than (Julius) Malema.”

Judge Kathleen Satchwell’s list of court horrors included dysfunctional air-conditioning and elevators, “requiring the public and practitioners to climb flights of stairs”, a telephone system without voicemail and that does not allow for communication between adjacent offices, electronic security which has not operated for years, and ­security which is either non-existent or inadequate, stairs “begrimed” with dirt and “cleaners” who are not provided with brushes or cleaning liquids.

The list also includes archives where records lie in no particular order on shelves and sometimes on the floor, a registrar’s office “where we are daily advised that court files containing pleadings are missing”, inadequate and ­outdated computer technology, periodic shortages of stationery and a lack of computers for judges.

Officials of other courts in South Africa produce similar ­litanies of woe.

An inspection of the toilets of the North Gauteng High Court building last week revealed a lack of ­toilet paper in some toilets.

So did doing the rounds of the Pretoria Magistrates Court. And one of the men’s toilets in Atteridgeville Magistrates Court seemed to be used as a depository for black refuse bags.

Air-conditioning systems in Pretoria Magistrates Court have periodically been out of order for weeks, officials have on occasion been sent home because work was impossible in overheated offices.

Registrar offices in a sizeable number of South African courts have poor control over court documents. Legal practitioners and journalists are often told that documents cannot be found.

The justice department appears to be aware of this serious problem and is in the process of tackling it.

According to Tlali, the department had secured the services of a provider of off-site storage facilities in a bid for better management of records.

This system, he said, would be rolled out nationally, starting with the Johannesburg Magistrates Court, followed by the South and North Gauteng High Courts.

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