The case of an alleged rapist who tried to attack a magistrate when his case was postponed for the umpteenth time has put court backlogs under the spotlight.
On February 28, the Judicial Norms and Standards document – meant to ensure every effort will be made to bring the accused to trial as soon as possible after their arrest and first appearance in court – was gazetted.
This includes ensuring an accused pleads to the charge within three months from the date of first appearance in the court and that criminal matters are finalised within six months after the plea.
However, 10 days later, a 19-year-old man facing two counts of rape – who had been in custody since May last year and is still awaiting trial – lost it at the Nelspruit Magistrate’s Court when his case was postponed once again. He attacked the two officers who tried to restrain him as he made his way to the magistrate.
When more people arrived to help constrain him, the man banged his head against the wall until he bled.
Judiciary spokeswoman Lulama Luti said the new regulations set out the minimum standards for the finalisation of cases and also provided recourse for those who might be aggrieved because of the time they or their loved ones spent behind bars awaiting trial.
Luti, who is also the director of media relations at the office of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, said the purpose was to ensure an accused person’s right to a speedy trial, as enshrined in the constitution, was protected.
“In terms of accountability, in cases where an accused person is in custody for longer than three months, six months, nine months and more, their matter has to be reported to the cluster head and the Magistrates’ Commission.
“Furthermore, there are now provincial structures through which all problems that affect the speedy finalisation of cases can further be addressed,” she said.
Professor Peter Jordi, of the Wits Justice Project, said while he could not give information on the time that many accused spent behind bars awaiting trial, he was busy with a case that had been going on for the past seven years.
The accused was arrested in July 2008 and charged with robbery. He was refused bail and is still awaiting the finalisation of his trial.
Calling the justice system “abusive and oppressive”, Jordi said issues such as missing dockets, the magistrate dying and the accused not being brought to court were some of the reasons the case had still not been finalised.
“The prosecution says it will take three years to finalise the case. If these standards are applied, there will be a revolution in the justice system,” he said
Dr Johan Burger, of the Institute for Security Studies, said the rationale behind the regulations might be to limit the conditions and circumstances under which postponements were allowed.
“Keeping in mind that some courts tend to have long breaks and in some cases start late, what the department is trying to do is to put proper guidelines and disciplines that will allow court officials to spend time in courts,” he said.