Pretoria - The Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, has stepped in to prevent the taxpayer from forking out R147.6 million in damages to a former prisoner.
The damages had emanated from the fact that the state attorney’s office did virtually nothing to defend the claim instituted against the police. “The state attorney knew the SAPS was faced with a claim in the amount of R147 615 000, but notwithstanding this astronomical claim, it decided to turn a blind eye on the application,” acting Judge Francois Botes said.
He added that if the claim remained uncontested due to the lack of any action on the side of the state attorney, it would have meant that the taxpayer was responsible for this huge payment.
Morake Isaac Matseke initially claimed R6m from the police after he was in jail for more than six years before his name was cleared on appeal and he was released.
He suddenly changed this amount to R147.6m.
Matseke was arrested and later convicted on a series of charges, including hijackings. He was sentenced to 75 years in jail, of which the magistrate ordered he had to serve an effective 35 years. His convictions and sentence were overturned on appeal.
Judge Botes had harsh words for the office of the state attorney, which is tasked with handling cases on behalf of government and its entities. He described the manner in which the state attorney dealt with this case as “unacceptable, shocking and horrific”.
The issue was that the state attorney’s conduct in virtually doing nothing to defend the matter paved the way for Morake to apply for a default judgment. This in effect means that he could turn to court for an order awarding him this astronomical amount, on the basis that there was no opposition.
The state attorney’s office, after it was first confronted with this claim, took its time to note its defence, although the court rules were clear this had to happen within a certain time frame. When it eventually did reply to the claim, it simply noted a bare denial of the allegation.
Judge Botes said it was clear from this judgment that the state attorney did not comply with the standard of professional conduct set out for attorneys. He said that to add insult to injury, when Morake increased his claim from R6m to R147.6m, the state attorney did nothing to object to this.
Moroko said in his summons that he was imprisoned for six years, two months and three weeks in the Barberton Maximum Prison for no just cause. He claimed for the deprivation of his liberty and for his suffering in jail.
When the state attorney did not respond to his claim, he at first turned to court in 2015 to strike down the defence of a blank denial of the events, as he wanted his money. The judge at the time instead ordered that the state attorney had to within 10 days set out their defence in an affidavit. This was never done.
The court, two years later, struck down the defence of a blank denial, which left the way open for Moroko to get the money he claimed. The state attorney still did nothing.
His lawyer subsequently wrote to the office of the state attorney that they wanted a settlement offer or they ask the court for default judgment. There was no response from the state attorney.
The police minister subsequently realised that it was confronted with a huge claim and its legal adviser issued an affidavit to the court admitting that the manner in which this case was dealt with could be described as “tardy”.
The court was then asked to overturn the previous order and allow the police to defend the case.
The judge said the police should be allowed to defend it as the taxpayer stood to lose multi-millions.
“It will be an absolute travesty of justice if the respondent (Moroko) is allowed to pursue his claim for damages on an unopposed basis, such as by default. Logic and commonsense dictate that the police should be afforded an opportunity to contest the claim,” Judge Botes said.