Warning over South Africa’s judicial system

 ·12 Mar 2024

The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, is anticipating a “substantial” negative impact on the justice department as a result of the recently announced budget – which did not see the increases that he had hoped for.

With the 2024/25 allocation for the department justice and constitutional development sitting at R21.612 billion, Lamola said that “my departmental budget is under pressure because of demands for expansion of services and inflationary increases.”

In a response to a question posed to him in parliament, Lamola said that some of the negative impacts that are expected as a result of “budget cuts” for various entities in the department include:

  • The increase of court case backlogs by an estimated 150,000;
  • Hindering the State Attorney’s capacity, efficacy and reliability to settle cases;
  • Decrease in the number of courts served with Legal Aid;
  • Disrupt the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) handling of complex prosecutions, including those of state capture;
  • Restrict the plan of broadening the State Investigating Unit (SIU) to handle the increasing number of cases;
  • Constrain court modernisation efforts.

These risks “are likely to become a reality,” said lecturer in the School of Law at Wits University, Shadi Maganoe. “Historic trends show that budget constraints often lead to operational challenges including case backlogs, and compromised services.”

“It is important to note that resource constraints and/or budget cuts are not the sole reason for the deep crisis in the system, but it plays a significant role in the overall quality of service delivered by the department,” she added.

According to the Public Service Commission, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has the highest number of defaulted payments among all government departments. During the 2023/24 financial year, the department reported 4,500 invoices that were either unpaid or paid late.

Court administration and mordernisation

On top of the “significant increase in case backlogs” (by 150,000) that is anticipated, Lamola said that the cuts will “obstruct the expansion of specialised courts for commercial crimes and impede the full implementation of gender-based violence legislation.”

There are also expected delays in “processing maintenance cases and administering estates [which] will negatively impact beneficiaries dependent on these funds.”

This could be exacerbated by the risks posed to the Department’s technological operations.

System maintenance and progress on a new data centre could be delayed and the deployment of the Court Audio Visual System may also be postponed, leading to a continued reliance on outdated equipment.

State legal services

“The state attorney’s capacity to settle cases and reduce contingent liabilities will be hindered, leading to potential losses in litigation and increased state expenditure,” said Lamola.

Additionally, efforts to overhaul the civil justice system and reform legal services will be impeded, which could impact the efficacy and reliability of state litigation and legal services, “potentially eroding public trust in the justice system,” explained Maganoe

Looking at Legal Aid, Lamola said that there would be “a substantial decrease in the number of courts served and a reduction in civil cases due to a shortage of practitioners [leading] to a strained staff complement due to higher caseloads, increased service complaints and a significant rise in court backlogs.”

“Reduced legal aid services due to budget constraints and delays in justice delivery could disproportionately affect marginalised population of the country, aggravating existing social inequalities,” said Maganoe.

Special Investigating Unit (SIU)

Lamola said that budget cuts will restrict the SIU’s ability to increase staff members in its attempt to address the growing number of investigations that it has.

“This limitation due to a lack of adequate funds could damage the institution’s reputation (with the public) and hinder its ability to achieve its strategic goals, including improved investigation times, data analytics for corruption cases as well as accelerated litigation based on their investigations,” said Maganoe.

National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA)

“The budget cuts [seen in both the SIU and NPA] will severely disrupt the NPA’s progress in handling complex prosecutions, particularly those involving state capture cases,” said Lamola.

Budgetary constraints could also impact the provision of adequate protection services for prosecutors and see the ceasing of a training programme for next generation prosecutors, explained the minister.

What could be done?

To mitigate the impact of these cuts, Maganoe suggests that the department collaborate with private entities to address the shortage of practitioners and supplement budgetary constraints.

According to the Wits law lecturer, this approach has the ability to reduce caseloads, prevent court backlogs, and raise awareness about the consequences of budget cuts through public advocacy campaigns.

Additionally, “the NPA and SIU may need to strategically prioritise high-impact cases, by focusing on those with the greatest potential to uphold justice and fight corruption,” said Maganoe.

The department can also implement internal efficiency measures, such as an improved workflow and the use of technology [which] will ensure that they make the best use of limited resources without compromising the quality of investigations and prosecutions,” she added.

Read: 2024 Budget in a nutshell – the biggest winners and losers

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