Magistrates 'drunks, thieves and killers'

2013-09-01 11:52

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Pretoria - Magistrates around the country are under fire for breaking the law - with four having been kicked out this year alone - as the credibility of courts suffers.

The Sunday Times reported that some magistrates have been suspended and, in some instances, removed from office for offences including sexual harassment, drunken driving, assault, gambling, fraud, theft and even murder.

According to the report, the seriousness of some of the cases has raised doubts about the magistrates’ ability to mete out justice. Statistics provided by the Magistrates’ Commission last week show that 258 complaints were made against magistrates last year, whereas 222 complaints have been received this year so far. These have resulted in 28 formal investigations.

Four magistrates have been removed from office this year, and one has been suspended. One magistrate was suspended last year. Some magistrates have also been accused of serious misconduct and in some cases they were found guilty.

Reports to parliament reveal numerous delays in finalising investigations against magistrates. In 2011, parliament’s justice portfolio committee complained of delays in the case of Mxolisi Matereke, a magistrate convicted of murder and assault. It took the commission more than three years after his first court appearance to charge him with misconduct. 

Magistrates 'living in fear'

Meanwhile, just two weeks ago several magistrates spoke out about how they live in constant fear and that it has become common occurrence for them to be threatened at gunpoint, stabbed, robbed and intimidated with bomb and death threats by criminals linked to cases they were hearing.

According to the Sunday Times, magistrates say they live in fear for themselves and their families and have had to improve security at their homes to such an extent that they – like those they put behind bars – are living in fortresses.

Despite this, some said their desperate pleas had fallen on deaf ears and there was little or no response by the justice department, which is supposed to help them when they are threatened.

Magistrates appear to be especially at risk of gangs, because those they are trying have henchmen outside prison to do their “work”.

Nazeem Joemath, president of the Judicial Officers’ Association of South Africa, said: “The security of magistrates should be a priority, like all judicial officers. It’s unfortunate that this is not happening.”

Pay dispute

The stress experienced by magistrates, as well as an increasing workload, formed part of the argument for a substantial pay increase in May by the Association of Regional Magistrates of Southern Africa (Armsa), which is believed to represent around 90 percent of regional magistrates in South Africa.

According to a SAPA report, the Association recommended an across the board cost of living adjustment of 9.5%, following the recommendation by The Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers for a seven percent annual remuneration increase for all public office-bearers for the 2010/2011 financial year. This was found to be impractical and budget constraints then resulted in a 5% increase being recommended, and agreed to by President Jacob Zuma.

The wage dispute led to a threatened strike by magistrates, a move which was widely criticised. The matter was put to rest by a Constitutional Court judgment, which dismissed an application to confirm an order of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria that set aside Zuma's decision.

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