Concourt says man was wrongfully jailed

The Constitutional Court has ruled that a man who spent five years in jail because of an administrative error may sue the minister of justice for unlawful arrest.

Chief Justice Pius Langa, delivering the unanimous ruling this week, noted that the Grahamstown High Court in 1999 forgot to issue a warrant for Jonathan Zealand’s release. Langa declared the detention unlawful and amounting to an arbitrary deprivation of Zealand’s freedom.

He warned that the error could bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

Zealand’s woes began when he was arrested in January 1997, with two others, and charged with murder, rape and assault.

During this time he was remanded in custody while a date for his trial was being sought. In May of the same year, Zealand, who is now 23 years old and unemployed, escaped from custody after his original case was postponed.

He was rearrested in August and the following year received a six-month suspended sentence for his earlier escape, but remained in custody on the original charges.

Zealand was tried and convicted in the Port Elizabeth High Court for murder and the unlawful possession of a firearm, crimes he was alleged to have committed while on the run from authorities.

He was then sentenced to 18 years’ jail, and was imprisoned in the maximum security wing of St Albans Prison in Port Elizabeth.

On August 23 1999, a full bench of the Grahamstown High Court set aside the second charge, leaving him facing only the original charges.

The registrar of the high court, however, erroneously omitted to issue a warrant for Zealand’s release on the second charge and did not inform the prison that Zealand’s appeal on the second charge had been successful.

This ”error” led to Zealand only being released in December 2004, more than five years after his successful appeal. In the interim, the original charges had been withdrawn. An aggrieved Zealand approached the Port Elizabeth High Court with the intention of suing the ministers of justice and correctional services for damages for ”unlawful” detention.

Port Elizabeth High Court acting Judge Pieter van der Byl ruled in Zealand’s favour, stating that he had been unlawfully detained ”for the entire period”, thus clearing the way for the damages case to resume.

However, the ministers took the case to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA). The majority of SCA judges found that Zealand was not wrongfully detained for the entire period, as the authorities had the ”legal authority” to keep him in custody by virtue of the fact that he was awaiting trial on the original charges.

The court therefore found that Zealand had only been illegally detained from October 2001 to June 2004. This last ruling by the SCA has now been set aside by Langa’s judgement, delivered on Tuesday morning.

The court found that Zealand had been illegally detained from August 1999 to June 2004 and ordered that the ministers pay the costs ”in the High Court, in the Supreme Court of Appeal and in this court [Constitutional Court]”.

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