Thursday, February 15, 2007

By Kevin Iles

Thabo Mbeki reiterated in his state of the nation address on Friday 9 February 2007, the intention to use new technology to improve management of the courts and the prosecution service to massively reduce case backlogs. Digital recording technology has already been installed in all of the country’s High Courts to improve the speed and quality of the recording of court proceedings. The Justice Department has indicated that it intends to extend the technology to Magistrates Courts in the future. A scanner system will also be used to automatically scan case dockets to prevent criminal trials from being stalled by the epidemic of lost dockets that seems to plague our courts. Our attorneys at Bowman Gilfillan have also noticed that the computer systems in the Witwatersrand Local Division of the High Court are operating again. We have often had difficulty obtaining transcriptions of court hearings and judgments timeously, and it remains to be seen whether the digital recording system will improve matters. Court files frequently go missing and have to be reconstructed, at extra cost to the client, and it is hoped that the scanner system being employed for criminal matters will also be extended to civil litigation. Backlogs on the High Court roll currently results in clients being allocated court dates for the middle of 2008, severely delaying justice and prejudicing the rights of our clients. This problem is being addressed by the use of electronic scheduling software and the appointment of retired judges and magistrates and legal practitioners to man additional courts. We hope that these changes will improve the service our clients receive from the courts over the course of 2007, and the President’s stated intention of addressing these problems is a welcome announcement.

Judicial training and education

This year will also see the tabling of the South African Judicial Education Institute Bill, a bill which aims to establish an educational institution for judges so as to improve justice delivery. The institution will be an independent body regulated by a council which consists primarily of judges and magistrates. No details are provided in the bill as to how the institution will operate in practice, whether education will be compulsory, or how, where and when judges are to be taught. The initiative has promise, however, and we will continue to monitor developments and keep our clients updated of changes in this and other areas of the administration of justice.