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By Citizen Reporter


Think piece: Suggesting magistrates don’t know the law is misleading

To create an impression that all magistrates 'don’t know the law' has the potential to erode public trust in the magistracy.

The public expect the highest standards of conduct from judicial officers in our courts and it is in the magistrates’ courts that the vast majority of South Africans access justice. That’s why the public’s perception of the magistracy ultimately affects their confidence in the justice system as a whole.

On 7 January, an article appeared in The Citizen (“SA Magistrates ‘don’t know law’”) which reported on interviews with 88 applicants for vacancies in regional magistrates’ posts and purports an alleged lack of knowledge, amongst some of the applicants, of the laws around rape. The article discusses the views of advocacy group, Judges Matter, who had sat in on the interviews.

It is important to note that the observations made in the article relate to candidates being interviewed and thus not to persons who have already been appointed as regional magistrates.

It is also important to distinguish between legitimate criticism of how certain individual candidates fared in the interviews, on the one hand, and painting the entire magistracy with the same brush, on the other.

We have approximately 367 regional court magistrates and 1,366 district court magistrates. Our regional courts hear serious matters every day and our high courts are generally confirming regional court judgments and sentences on reviews and appeals, thus indicating that our regional courts function well.

To therefore create an impression that all magistrates “don’t know the law” is misleading and has the potential to erode public trust in the magistracy.

In supporting our courts, we need to continuously strengthen recruitment and selection processes. One way of doing this is by making processes more transparent and advocacy groups, academic institutions, civil society and the media all have a role to play.

Regional Court magistrates deal with serious matters and as such interviews are stringent so that only the best candidates are considered for appointment. Applicants are tested on their knowledge of the law as well as their functional legal experience.

The public can rest assured that where there are displays of ineptitude or a lack of ability, appointments are not made.

  • Jeffery is deputy minister of justice and constitutional development.

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