Magistrates must pull up their socks

Namibians are losing trust in the country's lower courts, Deputy Chief Justice Petrus Damaseb told magistrates yesterday.

04 December 2018 | Justice

Long delays in finalising cases in Namibia's lower courts, unexplained absences and a host of other problems are delaying justice and need to be tackled urgently to regain the trust of Namibians.

The behaviour of judicial officers and the lack of responsibility in ensuring cases are handled quickly and effectively have left a “very bad impression” of the judicial system, Deputy Chief Justice Petrus Damaseb told magistrates gathered at the opening of a four-day magistrate's forum for legal reform in Windhoek yesterday.

He highlighted increasing reports and complaints “about courts not starting on time” and “magistrates being unavailable for unexplained reasons when cases are ready to proceed”. He said while many may deny these issues, Namibians “are watching and talking about our conduct”.

He said although a lack of funding, staffing and other issues do influence court proceedings, magistrates, as judicial officers, have a duty to perform their tasks to the best of their ability and with the available resources.

“Let's stop the blame game. Let each one of us individually and collectively as an institution and together as counterparts do our part to make sure justice is delivered,” Damaseb said.

Damaseb is heading the Criminal Justice Reform Task Team at the behest of Chief Justice Peter Shivute, who during his opening address yesterday said public frustration about the criminal justice system was increasing, with issues such as granting of bail to repeat offenders, “the rather long delays between arrest, the appointment of legal aid counsel, first appearance at court and the ultimate finalisation of criminal cases” irking many. Shivute acknowledged that “with these ever-changing times, our criminal justice reform has not kept pace with emerging issues within our criminal justice system”.

For this reason he created the taskforce, consisting of various stakeholders in the criminal justice system, under the stewardship of Damaseb.

He said the task team is a “multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral body which aims to diagnose the problems afflicting the efficiency and effectiveness of our criminal justice and to recommend solutions to the identified problems”.

Damaseb advised those in the room to use the four-day workshop “to introspect and change our attitudes and behaviour so that this kind of behaviour, if true, does not happen”.

“Remember: there is no smoke without fire.”

Problem solving

Damaseb said one of the proposed strategies on the table to address the problems is the implementation of a “very robust performance management system”.

He said heads of stations should hold their court officials “accountable”. “Without accountability, without responsibility, I don't think things will change.”

Damaseb said an example of the unacceptable long delays include case which was first registered at a lower court in 2013, but to date has not yet gone to trial and will likely not proceed in 2019 either.

He said apart from being in denial, many blame others in the system, including prosecutors, law-enforcement and forensic labs for the delays.

He stressed, however, that instead of blaming the system or others, “as presiding officers we have the duty to make sure that our rolls move”.

He said judicial officers can ensure that those not doing their job feel the consequences.

He underlined that while funding plays a big role in the execution of duties, judicial officers need to take ownership by working smarter and being more innovative with the available resources. He said another concern is data collection and statistics.

“It is difficult to plan and develop policy without reliable statistics. The integrity of data in the lower courts remains a huge challenge. Statistics are not readily available.” He said while part of the problem is the lack of IT infrastructure, “the heads of station must really take the issue of data capturing more seriously”. The task team has identified a number of short, medium and long-term strategies to address the issues, including comprehensive training, an audit to see how many more court officials and magistrates can be employed to reduce the backlog, finances permitting, to handle cases, a reception court, integrations of case management systems to enable magistrates to be in control of the litigation cases, 24-hour protection order accessibility and many more. Damaseb explained that reception courts are an early intervention tool to assess the trial-readiness of a case and to “weed out related interlocutory issues and to get cases ready for trial as soon as possible”.

This will enable magistrates to focus on trials instead of a court roll containing dozens of cases that are postponed.

Training, he said, is a critical priority area and “going forward training and more training is going to be the buzzword for both judicial officers and prosecutors”.

The magistrate's forum brings together magistrates and other key role players throughout Namibia to discuss and share information in preparation for the implementation of the intended legal reforms affecting the operations of lower courts.

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