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A Strand magistrate has landed herself in hot water after remarking: “I do not trust a domestic worker with a firearm,” when sentencing a 40-year-old woman for stealing two rings from her employer.
The woman said she stole the rings so she could send her 16-year-old son back to school.
The magistrate, Karen Scheepers, made the comments when she ordered that domestic worker Nicoleen Williams, who had pleaded guilty to theft, was unfit to possess a firearm.
After saying she did not trust a domestic worker with a firearm, the magistrate added: “The next step is possibly a house robbery.”
Now the remarks, as well as her treatment of Williams, have been described by Western Cape High Court Judge Robert Henney as “unbecoming of a person holding judicial office”.
He has ordered that a copy of his judgment, which did not name the magistrate, be sent to the Magistrate’s Commission.
Williams, a mother of two, worked on a farm in Stellenbosch, where she also lived. To supplement her income, she was also employed as a domestic worker.
She was arrested on April 16 and, days later, pleaded guilty to a charge of theft, admitting that, while cleaning, she stole two rings from her employer’s jewellery box in a moment of weakness and desperation.
She sold one ring the next day for R500, and kept the second one in her cupboard.
According to the evidence, before resorting to theft she had asked her employer to lend her money so she could send her child back to boarding school in Tulbagh.
Her employer, however, had refused, the court heard.
Williams was convicted in accordance with her guilty plea and, during the sentencing stage, testified that she had for several months been unable to afford to send her older child, who should have been in Grade 11, to boarding school.
In addition, she became ill and was unable to continue working. This prompted her to steal the rings, she said.
But Scheepers was not sympathetic, describing the theft as typical “me, myself and I” behaviour… “steal from my employer and just worried about me and my children’s circumstances”.
She added that too much emphasis was placed on offenders and children of an offender, without due regard for the interests of society and the offence committed.
This, she said, was why crime in South Africa was out of control.
Scheepers sentenced Williams to three years in jail.
Williams appealed to the High Court, and in a judgment handed down on Friday, Judge Henney said the magistrate’s comments were not borne out by the facts.
“Furthermore, the conduct that she had displayed towards the appellant during the sentencing proceedings, as well as thereafter, was totally unbecoming of a person holding judicial office,” he said.
Scheepers had a “total disregard for the dignity of the appellant and the dire situation in which she found herself, and the fact that she was remorseful.”
Scheepers had incorrectly found that Williams stole the rings out of greed, when she did so to ensure her older child returned to boarding school.
“In dealing with the plight of (Williams), (Scheepers) made the sarcastic, dismissive and demeaning remarks like ‘siestog’ and ‘the poor children’. These remarks infringed upon and had no regard to the dignity and humanity of the appellant and, in making such remarks, the magistrate transgressed the bounds of appropriate behaviour and conduct as expected of a judicial officer. I also find the remark that she does not trust a ‘domestic worker with a firearm’ unnecessary and inappropriate.”
Judge Henney said judicial officers should not regard people who had fallen foul of the law as unworthy of being treated with dignity and respect, especially when the accused had taken full responsibility.
“The administration of justice will be brought into disrepute if genuine and sincere appeals to mercy and compassion, as happened in this case, are scoffed at and ridiculed by magistrates who have taken an oath (in terms of the law) to uphold and protect the constitution, and human rights entrenched in it,” he added.
He found that the sentence imposed was grossly inappropriate and disproportionate, and instead imposed a six-month wholly suspended sentence.
Acting Judge Gayaat Salie-Samuels agreed.