South Africa

BUDGET POLICY STATEMENT

Office of Chief Justice must innovate to keep courts operational in a tough economic environment – Lamola

Office of Chief Justice must innovate to keep courts operational in a tough economic environment – Lamola
Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

The impact of Covid, along with budget constraints stemming from a reduced economic environment, continues to hamper the activities of government departments. To keep the courts running in this constricted context, the Office of the Chief Justice will have to innovate and develop new ways of operating to keep the courts operational, said Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.

This grim image emerges from the budget policy statement for the Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ), which Justice Minister Ronald Lamola delivered in Parliament on Tuesday. He was seeking the National Assembly’s approval for the OCJ budget.

The OCJ budget includes R1.305-billion in voted funds and R1.125-billion in direct charges to the National Revenue Fund for salaries of judges – 72% of the department’s total budget is dedicated to its main programmes, which include superior court services and judicial education and support.

Lamola said the OJC – like all government departments – continues to face budget limitations, which hamper its ability to operate as expected.

“After rallying in the third quarter of 2022, the South African gross domestic product, GDP, declined by 1.3% in the fourth quarter (October-December). Although GDP reached an all-time high in 2022, the economy has only grown by 0.3% from the 2019 pre-pandemic reading of R4.58-trillion,” Lamola said. 

“To keep the courts operational in this constrained environment, the OCJ will have to innovate and develop new ways of operating.”

As such, the OCJ will continue to reprioritise its budget and operations to ensure that the delivery of core services, namely, support to the courts, is not adversely affected. Important in this regard is ensuring the adequate capacitation of the justice department.

Last year, Lamola tabled a budget of R1.266-billion for voted funds and a further direct charge to the National Revenue Fund of R1.122-billion for the remuneration of judges.

Covid budget cuts

Budget cuts enacted since the Covid pandemic have reduced the OCJ’s 2023/24 board allocation by R144.4-million (10.2%). This meant the salary budget for employees has been reduced by R116.1-million and the budget for judges’ salaries has been reduced by R183.3-million (14%) for the 2023/24 financial year. A 5.5% reduction of the operational budget has also been implemented, translating to an effective cut of R28.3-million.

The OJC, says Lamola, has made headway in mitigating load shedding in all of its superior courts. Generators have been installed in 18 superior courts, with five more set to receive generators. One is to receive a solar-powered system.

Lamola also emphasised the importance of modernisation and digitalisation of court systems as another key priority area for the OCJ to improve access to justice for all by utilising technology in court hearings. 

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Felix Dlangamandla)

Political parties respond

Glynnis Breytenbach, DA Shadow Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, expressed concern over Lamola’s general lack of support for the OCJ.

“The minister has not provided the Chief Justice with the resources and support he requires to carry out his duties properly … the Chief Justice, through the JSC, has been unable to optimally appoint judges to vacant positions and the court has been unable to function effectively as a result.

“This had a significant impact on our justice system, causing delays in the resolution of cases and denying justice to many South Africans. It also had a significant and negative effect on the access to justice for many South Africans,” she said.

In view of the reported fraudulent rehabilitation order presented by the erstwhile Tshwane mayor, Murunwa Makwarela, steps must urgently be taken to ensure the integrity of court orders, she stressed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Muruna Makwarela has resigned…

Breytenbach also highlighted the power crisis:

“While the Cabinet has the luxury of fully paid-for generators to shield them from the dark, that courtesy is not extended to essential services. What a disgrace … the Minister and his department’s lack of support for the Office of the Chief Justice is not just a matter of policy or ideology. It is a violation of the Constitution and the rule of law.”

Parliament also heard from ANC MP Richard Dyantyi that the Justice and Correctional Service Portfolio was aware of major infrastructure and maintenance issues in courts and the judiciary’s displeasure with the situation, which limits people’s access to justice.

Dyantyi emphasised that the departure of several senior registrars and other experienced staff had placed a tremendous burden on courts. He asked that the OCJ report to the committee on what was being done to attract and retain professionals.

When former president Jacob Zuma established the OCJ as a department with its own budget in 2010, the EFF supported the move as it bolstered the country’s aims for an independent judiciary, according to EFF MP Yoliswa Yako.

“From the Constitution’s adoption in 1996 until the retirement of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, there was always the certainty that the judiciary was beyond capture, even when the judges got things wrong … we have historically supported the OCJ’s budget.

“Since Raymond Zondo’s appointment to the OCJ, there has been no longer that confidence and certainty that the OCJ has been led by a person who is beyond reach, after greasing the dirty hands of politicians,” Yako added.

Lamola’s response

Responding to the concerns raised, Lamola said President Cyril Ramaphosa had acted in accordance with the Constitution and consulted the JSC and the leaders of parties represented in the National Assembly when he appointed Chief Justice Raymond Zondo in March 2022.

“Most of the members who spoke here were consulted, including the EFF and everyone … they participated in this process. The president even opened this process to members of the public … in an innovative way that allowed members of the public to nominate whoever they wanted to [the post of] Chief Justice.

“So, any suggestion to the contrary is absurd, baseless, without merit and must be dismissed with the contempt it deserves,” said Lamola. DM

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