Steps are under way to take the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) out from under the Justice Department’s umbrella – and establish it as a stand-alone entity, possibly similar to Chapter 9 institutions supporting democracy like the public protector and auditor-general.

Acting NPA head advocate Nomgcobo Jiba told the Saturday Star that amendments to the NPA legislation were being proposed so the prosecutions authority was “independent”.

While the NPA must act without fear, favour or prejudice under the constitution – it accounts to Parliament through its own annual report and strategic plans, for example – it is still funded by the department.

And this has consequences: for example, budgets were cut for non-governmental organisation-run diversion programmes aimed at keeping non-violent and youth offenders out of jail while imposing alternative, non-custodial sentences, it emerged during a seminar on the NPA held by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) this week.

The Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa’s director, advocate Paul Hoffman, said, “provided it is done properly, I would welcome a change that makes the prosecution service as independent as the public protector, in other words, unencumbered [by] the Justice Department”.

The NPA was established in Chapter 8 of the constitution and was regarded as a line-function of the Justice Department, with the minister in charge.

If the NPA was established as a separate entity with its head accounting directly to Parliament, Hoffman added, “that would bring it into its own”.

In recent months the NPA has come in for a hammering amid claims of political interference: over the co-called “spy tapes” related to the April 2009 decision to drop corruption and other counts against President Jacob Zuma; with the Constitutional Court’s confirmation that previous national director of public prosecutions Menzi Simelane’s appointment by the president was invalid; and the murder charge brought against more than 270 Marikana miners for the deaths of their colleagues, who were shot by police on August 16, under the apartheid-era doctrine of common purpose.

Jiba dismissed claims of political influence over the prosecuting authority.

“These are perceptions. We strive to ensure we prosecute without fear, favour or prejudice,” she told the ISS seminar.

Regarding her own acting status, she said there was a collective leadership in place.

Jiba has been acting since December last year, when Simelane went on special leave in the wake of the Supreme Court of Appeal finding his appointment invalid. -Saturday Star