South Africa’s courts are struggling to clear persistent backlogs, with four out of 10 of the outstanding criminal trials before the country’s high courts at the end of the last financial year having been on the roll for more than 12 months at the time.
The office of the chief justice (OCJ) on Tuesday released its 2020- 2021 annual report.
The report noted that as of 31 March this year, the total number of outstanding criminal trials before the high courts was 870, with 353 of them backlog cases which had been on the rolls for more than a year.
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This is a new performance indicator for the OCJ and figures for the previous financial year were on Tuesday not readily available, but one of the targets set for the period under review had been to reduce the percentage of backlog cases on the high courts’ criminal trial rolls to 30%.
Only three provinces – Gauteng, Northern Cape and Western Cape – were ultimately able to achieve this and the overall figure was 41%.
Speaking at a virtual press briefing to report on the judiciary’s performance during the period under review, Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo on Tuesday said: “[The high courts] also set for themselves the target of reducingthe percentage of criminal trial backlogs to 30%.
“They were not able to achieve this target but they reduced the percentage of criminal trial backlogs to 41%.”
Democratic Alliance MP and former prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach said on Tuesday there was always a backlog, adding that sometimes it was unavoidable and there were good reasons that cases took longer to be finalised.
“But at 41%, that’s not really the case any more,” she said.
She said a major issue was that while the courts were supposed to sit for four and a half hours every day, regular late starts and early finishes meant they usually sat for less than two hours.
But even if the courts did sit for the full four and a half hours a day, Breytenbach said, the backlog would persist.
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Asked about possible solutions, she pointed to “night courts” and said this had proved effective in addressing the issue when she was a young prosecutor.
Zondo on Tuesday also fielded questions on the process for appointing judges, which came under fire recently on the back of the controversial interviews before the Judicial Service Commission – which he also chairs – this year.
“Over the years there have sometimes been people who have expressed views about the need for change or reform to be made to the manner in which judges are appointed in South Africa and I have heard, of late, some people who advocate for reforms,” he said.
“But, at this stage, I would not call for any reforms … I think it is more important we try and not tamper with the constitution unless we get to a point where it’s really serious.”