Making sexual offenders registry public a 'recipe for disaster' - legal expert

Crowds gathering at the JSE on Friday, protesting against gender-based violence. (Image via Twitter)
Crowds gathering at the JSE on Friday, protesting against gender-based violence. (Image via Twitter)

Following the high prevalence of violence against women and children in the month of August, the question over whether the sexual offenders registry should be open to the public has been brought to the fore.

Social movement Amandla.Mobi has petitioned Justice Minister Ronald Lamola to "make the sex offenders list publicly accessible online and on mobile platforms that anyone can easily access".

The petition was created 18 days ago with the goal of garnering 8 000 signatures. To date, the organisation has collected 7 842 signatures.

This followed a series of protests under the hashtag #AmINext, after the tragic deaths of young women in South Africa, including Sinethemba Ndlovu, Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre Jegels, Meghan Cremer and Ayakha Jiyane and her three siblings - all acts of gender-based violence, News24 reported.

ALSO READ: Gender-based violence: Show us your action plan, Mr President

What is the National Register for Sexual Offenders?

The National Register for Sexual Offenders (NRSO) - established through an Act of Parliament in 2007 - details a list of persons convicted of sexual offences against children and mentally disabled people.

The list is currently open to various institutions such as schools, creches, hospitals and employers in the private sector to ensure that a person who is not fit, is not hired to work with children and mentally disabled people.

According to Department of Justice spokesperson Chrispin Phiri, the list was updated as soon as a person was convicted of a sexual offence against a minor or mentally disabled person and the duration period was the same length as the imposed sentence.

According to the comparative study, The Viability and Constitutionality of the South African National Register for Sex Offenders, by N Mollema: "The Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957 requires that the details of persons sentenced to imprisonment or correctional supervision for between six to 18 months be removed from the NRSO after a period of 10 years, those sentenced to six months or less be removed after seven years, and offenders with lesser punishments be removed after five years. 

"Any person sentenced for a period of more than 18 months, or a person with two or more convictions, is not eligible for such removal." 

The NRSO is not open to members of the public and remains confidential at this stage. It is also a criminal offence to have any unauthorised disclosure or publication of contents in the register.

Should it be made open to the public?

Legal expert, advocate Deon Pool, was of the view this would be a "recipe for disaster".

"To put that in the public domain will create a platform for witch hunts, which is not the purpose of the sexual offences register.

"I do not think any good can come from it being made open to the public at the click of a button," he explained to News24 on Monday.

Pool added it was not in the interests of justice to create witch hunts, but rather the better solution would be to extend the scope of people who accessed it.

This could include persons who get consent from the offender, for example.

ALSO READ: Lawyers for Human Rights: Overhaul of sexual offences registry will not work

"There are three issues; it was not the intention of the legislation, it must be constitutionally sound [from both sides] and one must also consider what are the consequences," he added.

Phiri told News24 the power to make the register public does not only lie in the hands of the minister, but through a legislative process in Parliament that should look at the following: Have registration and notification laws influenced crime rates in other jurisdictions, as well as have registration and notification laws influenced factors other than recidivism.

He said Lamola would have to draft a bill that would then go through the Parliamentary legislative process.

"The minister is currently looking at the Sexual Offences Act through a victim-centric approach and overhauling it in its entirety," Phiri added.

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