Survey reveals court users don’t believe magistrates fully understand and apply the law correctly

Survey reveals court users don’t believe magistrates fully understand and apply the law correctly. Picture: File

Survey reveals court users don’t believe magistrates fully understand and apply the law correctly. Picture: File

Published Feb 20, 2024


More than one in five South African court users have disagreed that they believed magistrates in some courts fully understood and applied the law correctly.

This was according to the results of the UCT Democratic Governance and Rights Unit’s (DGRU) Magistrates’ Court Users Survey Report 2023.

Titled “Isidima”, the research surveyed six courts in rural and urban districts in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, using as many as 933 respondents, to assess the perspectives of ordinary South Africans who regularly accessed the magistrates’ court system.

The report revealed that while only 21% of users felt as though magistrates understood the work, researchers stressed that this was not an insignificant number as this necessitated the urgent need for training for magistrates, in particular acting magistrates.

“There is a huge number of acting magistrates and none of these magistrates are provided with any form of training; instead they learn on the job. All magistrates, regardless of whether they are acting or not, need to understand the law and apply it correctly, therefore an aspirant magistrate’s course is a dire need,” read the report.

Another thorn in the court users’ side that was highlighted by the report was repeated postponements and delays in the finalisation of cases.

According to the researchers, the number of times a person had to return to court for matters negatively affected perceptions, with some feeling as though the delays were detrimental to the access to justice and positive views of the effectiveness of the court system.

If anything, as per the norms and standards, the report detailed how magistrates’ courts ought to strive to finalise all civil cases within nine months from the date of issue of summons.

For criminal matters, however, it was advised that judicial officers had to ensure that every accused person pleaded to the charges against them within three months from their first appearance in the magistrate’s court and ensure that the matter was finalised within six months after the accused had pleaded.

“All judicial officers are enjoined to take a proactive stance to invoke all relevant legislation to avoid lengthy periods of incarceration of accused persons whilst awaiting trial.”

A lack of an online system was fingered as a contributory factor to the repeated postponement of cases, as it was found that often times the delays came as a result of missing court files, especially as 19% of court users noted that bribes were often solicited in magistrates’ courts order to “make documents get lost”.

“Having an online system is long overdue as this will contribute to keeping postponements to a minimum and ensure adherence to the norms and standards. At the same time, this will also assist in combating corruption within the courts,” read the report.

Similar to the unit’s previous research, titled “The Magistracy after Covid-19”, incorporating the views and opinions of 230 magistrates from across the country, Isidima also found users were concerned about the lack of adequate security in courts.

Even though security at the entrance and exit of courthouses is available, the lack of security within the courts themselves given that accused persons at times sat with the public was something that needed an urgent review.