/ 14 February 2024

Survey finds positive changes in SA magistrates’ courts

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A survey has found positive changes in South Africa's magistrates' courts. (Photo by Kim Ludbrook - Pool/Getty Images)

A recent survey on public perception of South Africa’s court systems suggests that there has been an improvement in how people are treated there.

The survey published by the University of Cape Town’s Democratic Governance and Rights Unit — one of the continent’s leading research centres — was conducted at six courts in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape with 933 public participants and 108 court employees.

The report noted that the survey was not “technically representative of the whole country and nor was it designed to be”.

According to the research, nine out of 10 participants said they had been treated with respect and dignity at the courts, a contrast to previous instances where people have highlighted the disrespectful manner in which they were dealt with.

But those interviewed said there were still flaws such as “unnecessary delays” when approaching the courts.

“These delays are occasioned most commonly by missing dockets and court files, and the unavailability of witnesses, which in turn may be a result of multiple postponements,” the report said.

The findings suggest that measures are needed to improve safety and access to justice, after participants said they were aware of sexual harassment and corruption in the system. This relates to missing dockets and court files.

“Better management of court records, more efficient use of the court day, and courts starting on time will all likely lead in the long run to a reduction in pressure on the courts while raising the number of finalisations, thus better meeting the unmet demand for justice,” the report said.

About 94% of participants said they had never been bribed and had also never seen anyone receive a bribe in the court process. But 6% said they were bribed in the past and knew someone who had been bribed.

According to the findings, 43% of bribe requests came from police officers, 14% from lawyers and clerks and 13% from prosecutors.

Zeenat Sujee, a senior attorney at public interest law centre Section 27, said it was “comforting” to read that many South Africans felt that courts had improved their processes, “hence improving access to justice”.

But Sujee said the advocacy group was concerned about the slow progress in handling criminal matters. 

“These delays result in women avoiding reporting sexual assault matters which allows perpetrators to escape liability,” Sujee said.

The report has been submitted to the department of justice and constitutional development, with suggestions from the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit on how to mitigate setbacks in the court system.

It is one of three reports commissioned and published by the unit over the past four years, including one which studied the views and opinions of 230 magistrates countrywide. That report focused on the magistrates’ heavy caseload, concerns for their safety and security, and the effect the Covid-19 pandemic had had on the system.