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Magistrates struggling to manage workload and fear for their lives

By Sisonke Mlamla Time of article published Jul 30, 2020

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Cape Town - More than half of magistrates working in the province’s lower courts are in fear of their lives, suffer from stress and complain about heavy workloads, according to a survey conducted by the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) at UCT.

Based at UCT’s Faculty of Law, the DGRU is a research and advocacy unit focused on supporting judicial governance and providing free access to legal resources in Africa.Vanja Karth, director of the DGRU, said given the importance of the magistracy in providing access to justice, as well as their increasing role as a pool of potential judges of the high court, it was important to understand how they view their role.

The DGRU surveyed 156 magistrates for the first analysis. Karth said 50% of magistrates surveyed indicated that their workloads were far too high.

She said if justice required, among other things, time for judicial officers to deliberate on a case in front of them, the survey suggested that too many magistrates perceived that they did not have sufficient time to do so.

According to the survey, magistrates who dealt exclusively with civil cases, which amounted to roughly six out of 10 respondents, indicated that their workload was unmanageable.

Karth said prosecutors’ experiences (are) in criminal law, which means their training was primarily in criminal law.

“Only when they are appointed as magistrates, do they receive training in civil law. It may be that a lack of training is hampering magistrates’ ability to work effectively,” she said.

The survey revealed that, alarmingly, more than half of the respondents feared for their safety - in and outside of court.

“Roughly 44% of magistrates said they have been personally harmed as a direct result of their judicial role (40% men and 50% women). About 55% of magistrates in the Western Cape and 64% of magistrates in Limpopo have been threatened in the past.”

Karth said geographical location played a large role in the process, and researchers observed “notable” differences when comparing scores by province.

Given the high volumes of work and an ongoing fear for their safety, Karth said it was hardly surprising when magistrates indicated that they were experiencing high levels of stress at work.

“About 45% of respondents said that they experienced a great deal of stress, while 26% said that they experienced a lot of stress.”

“It is common sense that a high case-load and perceptions of lack of safety and security are causes for increased levels of stress,” she said.

Karth said that 60% of magistrates reported daily irritability, 57% reported muscle tension, 56% said they were having trouble sleeping and 50% said they suffered from headaches and anxiety.

Alison Tilley, coordinator of Judges Matter, which is a project of the DGRU, said they were currently hard at work formulating policy recommendations based on the evidence.

“We hope to have that ready in the next two weeks, and we will launch the report for public debate then. We need to ensure the country's magistrates continue to produce work of integrity and quality.

She said Judges Matter aims to bring transparency and awareness to the general public on the interview process and the appointment of South Africa's judges and magistrates.

The survey comes months after a prominent attorney William Booth survived an alleged assassination attempt in his home in April.

The shooting of Booth came five months after Cape Town lawyer Vernon Jantjies was gunned down last December. Jantjies, who dealt with high-profile cases, was shot execution-style.

In November 7, 2016, prominent attorney Noorudien Hassan was shot in his car outside his home in Lansdowne.

City lawyer Pete Mihalik was gunned down in October 2018 after dropping off his children at Reddam House Atlantic Seaboard School in Green Point.

Cape Argus

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