Understanding South Africa's different courts and their functions
Most people don't understand the structure of South African courts.
However, Kirstie Haslam, partner at DSC Attorneys, offered a straightforward guide to the country’s different courts, along with an explanation of which courts may be involved in hearing personal injury claims:
Small Claims Court
Small claims courts deal with any civil matter where the claim is for less than R15 000. Typically, these claims involve individuals rather than companies or corporations.
Examples of matters that can be taken to a small claims court include:
* claiming goods that are due to you or money owed
* claiming damages
* claims based on violations of legal agreements or documents.
Magistrate’s courts are at the lower level in South Africa’s system of courts. They’re divided into district and regional courts.
District courts hear civil matters and less serious criminal cases, involving offences other than rape, murder or treason. They can impose fines of up to R120000 and prison sentences of up to three years.
Regional courts may also hear civil matters and can deal with criminal cases involving any offence except treason. They can also hear divorce cases. A regional magistrate’s court can impose fines of up to R600 000 and hand down prison sentences of up to 15 years.
There are 10 provincial and three local high courts, each presiding over a different jurisdiction, in South Africa. These courts hear cases that can’t be handled by the magistrate’s courts.
Circuit courts are also part of the high court system. They move around the country in order to serve more rural areas.
Supreme Court of Appeal
The Supreme Court of Appeal deals exclusively with appeals against rulings. No other court, except for the Constitutional Court, can change a decision made by the Supreme Court of Appeal.
The Constitutional Court is the highest court in the land and deals with constitutional matters. It hears appeals that relate to the constitution only after a judgment has already been handed down. All other appeals go to the Supreme Court of Appeal. No other court can overturn a ruling made by the Constitutional Court.
A number of specialist courts have been established by Parliament to deal with matters in specific areas of law. These include the Labour Court, Land Claims Court, Electoral Court and tax courts.
All except the tax courts have a status similar to the high courts. The tax courts deal specifically with disputes between Sars and taxpayers.
The military courts deal exclusively with cases involving members of the South African National Defence Force, who are subject to the Military Discipline Code. They deal with serious offences that can’t be handled by a commanding officer.
Which South African courts hear personal injury cases?
The value of a personal injury claim helps to determine which court will deal with it.
Magistrate’s courts can hear a case only where the value of the claim is less than R400 000. If the value is expected to be greater than this, a personal injury case will be heard by a high court.
Any appeal against a ruling by a magistrate’s court will proceed to a high court. Appeals against rulings made by high courts are either heard by a full Bench of that division (meaning a panel of three judges), alternatively, in certain circumstances, by the Supreme Court of Appeal.