GROUNDUP

Desperate message from senior judge shows court infrastructure is breaking down

By Tania Broughton for GroundUp 9 October 2020

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Lawyers we spoke to blamed the problems at the Pretoria High Court on the Office of the Chief Justice. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mike Hutchings / Pool)

No telephones, no internet, no Wi-Fi, no emails and not enough judges. This is reportedly the state of affairs at the Pretoria High Court.

First published by GroundUp.

The wheels of justice are grinding slowly at one of South Africa’s most superior courts.

The Pretoria High Court (or Gauteng Division as it is also known) has its home in the administrative capital of the country and jurisdiction-wise hears most cases involving legal challenges to government, many of which are deemed urgent.

However, according to a WhatsApp message sent by a senior judge at the court to colleagues, the situation is dire because of a collapse of infrastructure.

The court – and apparently most courts around the country – have not had email access after a massive system failure on 21 September, which has yet to be fixed. Internet access is especially important for the courts during the Covid-19 pandemic because much of the work is being done online, including many hearings.

While the Pretoria court has had access to Wi-Fi over the lockdown period, it is currently not working. Other courts, including in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, are in a similar position and judges have to use their personal accounts.

In a message sent to colleagues this week, the judge said: “Just sharing frustrations at court despite proactive attempts at many meetings to ensure that this week we will function, even without emails.”

She said in the civil section, three clerks were using private email and internet, but two couldn’t.

Many of the registrar’s computers had been corrupted so they could not work, even if there was Wi-Fi.

Private contractors engaged to manage technology had left the building and “their contract will not be renewed”. The contractors’ role is to manage case lines — the court’s online document management system — and enable virtual meetings. The case lines clerks, who helped with invitations to attend virtual hearings, had also not had their contracts renewed.

On top of these technical hurdles, there were too few judges to handle too many cases, with 129 not placed on the roll this past Monday as a result.

On Wednesday, Monday’s roll had still not been finalised and cases weren’t being allocated to judges.

“The attorneys are complaining… They are having to pay fees to counsel even though matters are not being allocated,” the judge said in her WhatsApp message.

“One attorney suggested sending each (available) judge 30 matters. But even if I do that, which I won’t, we will get through only Monday and half of Tuesday’s roll of a whole week.”

She said in the first three days (of this court session) there had been seven requests for urgent applications which had merit. “We have no dates or judges available to hear them, but I am trying to accommodate them.”

She said while cases could be heard “virtually”, the default position is that trials should be heard in open court.

“I approached seven judges yesterday for a two-week special trial, set down on the roster, to be heard in court for good reasons, and all seven refused point blank.” This is apparently because of Covid-19 concerns.

She said there was also a backlog with petitions.

“I share this so that there is some understanding of the frustration at court. This office is inundated with personal and email enquiries caused by the collapse of our infrastructure.”

An advocate, who often appears in the court, said running trials during the pandemic was a problem but the virtual system worked well if there was proper internet access.

The shortage of judges in Gauteng was a long-standing problem, he said, and the problems being experienced were not as a result of mismanagement of the court, but because of inefficiencies in the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ).

Another source said: “How do you run a court in a pandemic without the internet? The management of the court are decent exemplary people who are doing a competent job. The problem is they’re not getting the resources they need.”

Alison Tilley, of watchdog group Judges Matter, said: “The effect of Covid on the courts is very concerning. Outdated and inadequate IT infrastructure is clearly a problem and needs to be addressed.”

The Legal Practice Council told GroundUp that it was aware of the problems in the Gauteng High Court and was trying to address them.

We approached OCJ spokesperson Nathi Mncube for comment, giving details of the judge’s Whatsapp message. However, he said he wanted to see the message himself in order to check its authenticity, and would be unable to assist without it. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 15

    • Trump has lost the right to call ANY other country a shit hole. Quoting him does nothing to enhance the very real point you make. It’s like quoting Duterte on the finer points of responsible judicial governance.

  • “Tech fails courts” would be more appropriate, I know the current title is more sensational but I think it is morally wrong to imply that our justice system is falling when in fact that’s not what the article is about – this headline alone may do more damage than the failing tech discussed here.

    • Agreed…and my question is… is this only prevalent to the Gauteng division…and if so why ? Is it possible the EFF (or other similar ‘distinguished’ body) has the ‘maintenance’ contract ?

    • You are correct, David FC, in that the body of the article referred only to the technical shortcomings of the court. That said, there are so many other instances of the judicial system’s ill-health, admittedly most hearsay, innuendo and unsubstantiaed reports, that I DO worry about the overall health of this critically important pillar of our democratic system.
      An article documenting some of these hitherto scattershot reports (eg. quota system in attorneys’ governing body; the many years ongoing scandals involving the head justice of the WC High Court; the well-documented differing standards involved in achieving Senior Counsel status by race; tardiness in getting judgements out on time, to mention but a few), might go a long way in allaying, or confirming, concerns raised about our judicial system’s health and independence.

  • I can confirm the difficulties being experienced at the Johannesburg High Court, But no one mentions the complete inability of legal practitioners to access and resolve and finalise matters at the office of the Master of the High Court, Johannesburg. There has been no access since March to examiners by legal practitioners to enable them to resolved queries, let alone find out whether letters or documents delivered to that office have reached their proposed destination or has been attended to. Attempts to telephone that office remain unanswered.
    Why can’t the above offices take a leaf from the office of the Registrar of Deeds, Johannesburg, whose office has experienced similar challenges but yet runs as smooth as clockwork.

  • Sensational headlines may help circulation but also generate fear. Please guys! Get us more factual stories about solutions if you possibly can. There havecto becways to get the courts up and running! PLEASE

  • A functioning judiciary is the cornerstone of a just society. All South Africans have an interest in the proper functioning of our courts.
    A previous commenter called for solutions – here is one for you.
    Maybe it’s time we take a leaf from “A Bug’s Life.”
    In the movie, Flik ultimately appreciates that the key to success is a colony working together to achieve a common goal. The little Ant did not need formidable warriors to defeat the giant grasshoppers. In the end, everyone contributing, no matter how small, saved the day.
    From the content of the article, there appears to be the following immediate needs:
    1. An alternative internet solution.
    2. New computers
    3. Funding to appoint more judges
    Considering the devastating effects of Covid-19 on our countries economy, it is unlikely that the government can fulfill this need in the immediate future. It is up to us ants to help.
    In the Flik spirit, I challenge fellow South Africans to offer their contributions to get our judiciary up and running again.
    I offer to do the following:
    • I am a practising attorney at the Pretoria High Court. I’ve been working closely with CaseLines UK for the past two years and have an extensive knowledge of the workings of the CaseLines-program and the integration possibilities. I can assure the senior judge and my colleagues that CaseLines UK is committed to offering a workable solution for the South African judiciary. I’ve also automated my attorney practice extensively and have experience finding affordable, viable, and practical solutions to information technology challenges in the legal environment. I offer to work with the senior judge on CaseLines queries and to find affordable IT-solutions for her court
    • I also offer to create and manage a separate trust account where fellow South Africans can make financial contributions to
     enhance the information technology infrastructure of the courts and
     to appoint and train more judges.
    I offer to manage the trust fund with the senior judge and account to the public on how the funds are used. I pledge and undertake as a practising attorney in good standing to use the funds for its intended purpose.
    Please take up the Flik-challenge. Together we can make a difference!
    #flikchallenge
    #flikspirit
    Amarentiea Pienaar
    Moller & Pienaar Attorneys
    [email protected]
    http://www.mollerpienaar.co.za

      • Hi William

        I appreciate all contributions and do not want to prescribe what or how our people should make them. I believe every positive action makes a difference, no matter how small.

        The contribution can be anything – campaigning an awareness that the public interest and the judiciary matters, sharing knowledge and know-how, a financial contribution, a vote of support and encouragement, or simple thank you to the judge for speaking out asking for help.

        Contributors can contact me at [email protected] to make a private pledge or post a public commitment here.

  • PRESIDENT VERSUS PUBLIC PROTECTOR

    Ramaphosa’s lawyers on Mkhwebane: ‘Report reveals reckless determination to nail the president’

    By Rebecca Davis