Doubts over replicating Cup courts

2010-07-07 21:29

Johannesburg - Doubts have been expressed over plans to replicate aspects of World Cup courts which have seen the cases of criminals who have targeted visitors to the event, or visitors in trouble, swiftly concluded.

"They have dedicated prosecutors sitting around making snotbolletjies (snot balls) waiting for a case to come to them," commented Golden Miles Bhudu, head of SA Prisoners' Organisation for Human Rights, in response to the justice department's hopes to carry over successful elements of the courts to the "normal" justice system.

The lobby group, which often complains about the lengthy waits behind bars for people who have been denied or cannot afford bail, is not holding its breath for an overnight improvement in the processing of cases.

Bhudu said: "What we have been saying all along is that we need to bend right backwards to please international communities and give them the impression that everything in this country is hunky dory. It's not.

"People wait a minimum of eight months for their case to get underway - the maximum could be anything between three to eight years before you are found guilty."

60% success rate

At the start of the World Cup, the Law Society of SA was among those, including Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who expressed optimism over the replication of aspects of the World Cup court system after the tournament.

According to the justice department there had been 172 cases involving 223 accused since the tournament started and 104 prosecutions - a 60% success rate. The 56 special courts started operating on a budget of R45m on May 26.

With over 1 000 officials and just under 100 foreign language interpreters, one of the aims of the courts was to cut down on the costs of flying foreigners involved in crime or victims of a crime back to the country for court appearances.

Open until 23:00 and working over weekends and public holidays, so far crimes dealt with have included laptop theft, a non-existent car rental contract, the theft of a handbag containing expensive items, assault during a pub brawl, ticket scalping, and, famously, wearing an orange dress bearing the name of a non-sponsor.

Sentences have ranged from 18 months or a R10 000 fine for an Australian implicated in a bar fight, 20 months in prison for trying to steal a duvet, and in the case of socialite Paris Hilton's friend Jennifer Rovero, a R1 000 fine hours after being arrested for possession of one dagga joint.

There was no reason, in principle, why these cases should not be properly finalised within two weeks, said Wits criminal law teacher Professor Steve Tuson.

Sustainable arrangement

An arresting officer would only have to get two simple statements as evidence and when he goes to court, dedicated public defenders and prosecutors were waiting for the cases. With a guilty plea, a conviction could follow within 30 minutes.

However, this was not the case during the "normal" functioning of the courts where prosecutors normally have 20 to 30 cases on their roll.

"They don't sit around twiddling their thumbs like these guys are," said Tuson.

An investigating officer alone may have 120 dockets on his plate, involving at least two witnesses each.

"It is hectic," he said.

Justice department spokesperson Tlali Tlali said it would be premature to judge it impossible to replicate aspects of World Cup courts.

"In order for us to have a long term and sustainable effective arrangement that is realistic and takes into account the resource limitations, we need to look at this model critically and extract and use (positive aspects) in the criminal justice system.

"It is operating as a well-oiled machine and we need to look closely to see what has worked."

Seemingly harsh sentences

Another factor that has come under the spotlight is the seemingly harsh sentences meted out to some offenders.

Twenty-six year-old Mcebisi Pikoko, who is homeless, was sentenced to 20 years for attempting to steal a duvet from the unlocked vehicle of a visitor. On Tuesday, a 12-year sentence was handed down to 21-year-old Martin Palmer for stealing clothes and a DSTV decoder from a Spanish tourist's room.

Tuson said on their own these sentences appeared shocking and absurd, but explained that courts looked at a triad of factors when deciding on a sentence -- the personal circumstances of the accused, the seriousness of the crime, and the interests of the community, with previous convictions also coming into play.

Palmer already had two previous convictions -- attempted murder and robbery, Pikoko for theft, housebreaking and shoplifting.

All these sentences can go on appeal, and, he added: "The test is if it is utterly wrong".

Asked whether Hilton and Rovero were treated differently because they are foreign celebrities, he said South African judges and magistrates each had their own approach to this particular crime.

"Some regard dagga as a gateway drug that would lead to use of other drugs like ecstasy and they hammer offenders. Others see it as university student stuff that should be legalised."