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Johannesburg - The justice ministry is out of touch with problems confronting magistrates in lower courts and is not taking their salary demands seriously, the Judicial Officers' Association of SA (Joasa) said on Monday.
As a result, magistrates had reached the point of opting for strike action.
“(It) is quite embarrassing for us to do this,” said Joasa president Nazeem Joemath.
“The fact of the matter is nobody listens. The ministry of justice is out of touch.... I'm really stunned by the department's attitude.”
Joemath said the 5.5 percent salary increase recently approved by the department had nothing to do with the matter.
The increase was rejected by Joasa and the Association of Regional Court Magistrates of Southern Africa (Armsa).
“They've 1/8the justice department 3/8 been making it in the media that we are unhappy with 5.5 percent,” said Joemath.
“They are shifting the actual question. It has taken the magistrate from being the victim to the villain.”
Joemath said all Joasa and Armsa were looking for were the same salaries, benefits and service conditions as other judges within the confines of the sliding scale.
The point of contention stemmed from recommendations made to the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers (ICR) in 2008.
This related to salaries for magistrates and judges at all court levels, including the Constitutional Court.
It was recommended that salaries be adjusted to a three percent sliding scale.
The Chief Justice's salary was planned to be the anchor to work downwards from, in line with the imperative of establishing a single justice system.
However, Joemath said this scale took place only within the high courts.
Lower court salaries continued to be adjusted year-on-year, similar to those of other public servants.
Joemath said that in 2008, magistrates earned 47 percent of what the chief justice earned. In 2011, that figure had shrunk to 30
He said if the recommendations had been implemented in 2008, magistrates would be earning approximately double what they were earning now.
Both Joasa and Armsa had approached the legislative branch after the implementation was approved by President Jacob Zuma in 2010.
After the National Council of Provinces had studied the recommendations, it agreed with Joasa and Armsa that the sliding scale be introduced across the board in 2008.
“ 1/8However 3/8 when we went to the justice portfolio committee to brief them, it doesn't matter how good your argument is as the decision has been already made,” said Joemath.
“When we called for the strike, we thought we were going to get engagement, which has not taken place. Magistrates are demoralised and disillusioned.”
Arguments in the IRC matter had already been presented in the Constitutional Court, where judgment was reserved.
Despite Joemath's comments and a planned strike by magistrates, courts around the country were said to be operating as usual on Monday.
Justice spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said the courts were functioning in all nine provinces with no disruptions.
The Cape Town Magistrate's and Regional Courts seemed to be functioning as usual, with magistrates listening to cases and postponing matters.
“No, there have been no disruptions at all. Nobody is on strike. Everybody's here and it's a normal day,” said chief magistrate for the Cape Town cluster Mzukizi Dimbaza.
Vick Misser (SUBS: CORR), director of the Johannesburg court cluster, said there were no major disruptions in the city.
“All magistrates have reported for duty,” he said.
In the Durban Magistrate's Court, chief magistrate Thamsanqa Mabaso said: “There is a good turnout and we have normal rolls.”
On Sunday, Mhaga said the strike would cause little disruption, as acting magistrates had been appointed and would deal with cases which were ready to proceed.
Democratic Alliance justice spokeswoman Debbie Schafer said the pending outcome in the Constitutional Court was the appropriate course of action for the issue at hand.
“We believe that once the Concourt judgment has been given, it will also assist in pointing all parties in the right direction to resolve this issue as soon as possible,” she said.
“The DA hopes that those magistrates on strike will reconsider their decision in the interests of their profession and members of the public.” - Sapa