“[I] chose to ignore the directives” and “you will hear from me”.
These were the words written by Naomi Engelbrecht, the regional court president of Mpumalanga, in an email she sent to Judge President Francis Legodi of the Mpumalanga High Court after she was slated by a full Bench in a verdict delivered in Mbombela on Wednesday.
The judges said the use of such language by Engelbrecht was inappropriate, disrespectful, and unnecessary belligerent towards Legodi.
She also irked the ministers of justice and environment, forestry and fisheries as well as the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions and environmentalists when she decided to close the Skukuza Regional Court.
Over the years, the court has played a vital role in the fight against rhino poaching and bringing poachers to justice.
However, after two years of threatening to close it, Engelbrecht did just that with immediate effect in August last year.
She was of the view, among others, the court building had not been proclaimed a legitimate regional court.
Engelbrecht instructed all rhino-related cases to be moved to the court in Mhala, Bushbuck Ridge, which is about 100km from Skukuza.
Despite a public outcry against her decision, she refused to reverse it.
After the crisis came to his attention, Legodi tried to convince Engelbrecht to reverse her decision as he believed she did not have the authority to make the call. She once again refuse.
Legodi, as her senior in the justice system, then gave her official instructions (directives) to move the court back to Skukuza.
It was during this period that Engelbrecht told Legodi she “chose to ignore the directives”. She also claimed he was not authorised to prescribe to her, as regional court president, what to do.
In December, when an urgent application was brought by the director of public prosecutions in the court in Mhala to have cases moved back to Skukuza, Engelbrecht decided to preside over the application herself.
She rejected it and, among others, said the directives given to her by Legodi to move the court and cases back to Skukuza was null and void, adding she would not implement them.
Legodi then called for a motion to review the case and for the lingering conflict between him and Engelbrecht to be heard by a full Bench.
In February this year, the motion was brought in front of Judge Bernard Ngoepe, the retired judge president of the North Gauteng High Court, retired Judge Cynthia Pretorius and acting Judge Moira Mankge.
All parties involved in the motion, except for two, supported it.
Advocate Kgama Shai said in court he was appearing on behalf of rhino poachers as well as Engelbrecht.
In a unanimous verdict on Wednesday, the judges ruled the court in Skukuza was legitimate, the instruction given to Engelbrecht by Legodi was valid and binding, and her decision to reject the State’s application to have cases moved back to Skukuza was invalid and thus overturned.
The judges also ordered the verdict should be forwarded to the magistrate’s commission for further action.
Neither the commission nor Engelbrecht responded to questions sent to them.