Court cases to be postponed beyond lockdown

AT RISK: Court cases will be postponed to beyond the lockdown period in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus
AT RISK: Court cases will be postponed to beyond the lockdown period in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus

All outstanding criminal and civil cases in the Eastern Cape will be postponed until after the March 26-April 16 lockdown period.

Presiding officers will, however, be required to be on standby should an emergency arise out of activities associated with disaster management.

The announcement by Eastern Cape judge president Selby Mbenenge comes as legal practitioners complained this week about a lack of precautionary measures at the various Nelson Mandela Bay courts, particularly at the magistrate’s court in North End and the Specialised Commercial Crimes Court in Old Grahamstown Road.

According to the legal practitioners, since the announcement of the Covid-19 outbreak, no gloves or masks had been supplied to them and there was a woeful shortfall of hand sanitiser.

Some court staff had also complained of an increase in children seen wandering about the court building, likely as a result of schools having closed.

Though a directive was circulated by the justice ministry last week indicating that stringent methods would be implemented to curb the further spread of the coronavirus, such as alcohol hand sanitisers being installed at all entry and exit points and hand-held infrared thermometers to be used on anyone entering the judicial buildings, when The Herald visited the magistrate’s court on Monday, the only noticeable new measure in place was a sign-in register in the foyer, where an official sprayed the hands of members of the public as they entered the building.

At the commercial crimes court, prosecutors claim the hand sanitiser at the security desk was supplied by them.

In a circular sent out on Tuesday afternoon, however, a day after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the 21-day lockdown, Mbenenge urged the registrars’ offices not to set down any motions during the said period.

Judges, however, would remain on standby should an emergency case arise out of activities associated with  disaster management.

Mbenenge said all outstanding criminal cases would be postponed to after April 16.

“Criminal cases already set down for hearing during the lockdown period should be brought forward, by arrangement with all relevant parties, and postponed to a date beyond the lockdown period. This is especially so in matters involving awaiting-trial inmates,” Mbenenge said.

“Court managers and registrars shall develop and circulate a duty roster of officials that will be on standby during this period.

“All appeals and civil cases enrolled for hearing during the first week of the second term shall be removed from the roll and set down for hearing on dates beyond the lockdown period.”

A senior prosecutor, who is remaining anonymous as he is not permitted to speak to the media, was relieved by the decision, saying that until now the requests by the minister of justice had not been adhered to.

“We have been working with witnesses and the public with no protection.”

He said some of his colleagues, left with no other option, had been forced to bring their children to work with them.

Though regional  justice department head Tsietsi Malema did not respond to numerous requests for comment, ministry of justice and correctional services spokesperson  Chrispin Phiri  said further developments around the courts would be dealt with at a media briefing on Wednesday.

A regional court prosecutor said though their bosses had urged them to take care of themselves, while the courts were in operation they still had to have regular contact with investigating officers, members of the public, witnesses, accused persons, attorneys and their fellow colleagues.

Members of the public   still had full access to the building, which would hopefully be brought to a halt as of Friday.

An advocate at the commercial crimes court said the department of justice had not provided them with any precautionary materials.

“There is only a bottle of sanitiser here that we supplied among ourselves,” he said.