Prisoners being brought to court late, cases collapsing for various reasons — including the non-payment of legal fees — and those involved in cases getting sick.
These are some of the reasons why the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court is so quiet.
It’s now a year since the country’s first lockdown and there is still not much activity taking place at the local courts.
“Backlogs upon backlogs are being created,” said a court interpreter.
Weekend Witness interviewed a range of people from the Pietermaritzburg Magistrate’s Court who gave first-hand insight as to how Covid-19 has impacted the justice system.
During the hard lockdown, no trials took place, but as it eased, old part-heard trials were given preference to resume.
But it is still not smooth sailing at the courts.
An interpreter said that the economy is also having a negative impact on the justice system. “Accused come to court and say that they can’t afford their legal representative because they have lost their jobs or took salary cuts. These cases have to be adjourned so that a legal aid attorney can be instructed.”
And it’s not a simple process when this happens because if the matter is a part-heard, the record of previous court proceedings have to be transcribed and then the new representative needs time to prepare for the trial.
Another court official said that sometimes attorneys, accused, witnesses or those involved in cases, book off sick. This also results in cases having to be adjourned.
She said delays are also caused by prisoners arriving late at court.
What is happening in the courts is having a ripple effect on legal representatives.
Richard Stuurman of the Black Lawyers Association said many attorneys have closed their practices and are now seeking employment as a result of clients, among others, having lost their jobs. Thus, clients with outstanding statements are no longer settling them.
“While all of this is happening the landlords and other creditors do not care that legal practitioners are not getting an income. They just want their rental and the service providers, their instalments on time. Attorneys have had to lay off staff,” he said.
Some of the challenges that black attorneys are faced with, added Stuurman, is that most firms do not have the equipment to work remotely.
This, compounded by the restrictions that were in place to access courts, dramatically impacted on how attorneys function.
He added that the fund created by government to assist attorneys during the pandemic was an administrative burden and the allocation, “pathetic to say the least”.
Many attorneys did not bother to even apply for the assistance.
Stuurman said that at the moment there seems to be some way forward with courts now easily accessible.
“Trials have started, some clients are now employed, which could make a difference financially. With a few hiccups here and there, we are addressing the challenges with all relevant stakeholders,” he added.
President of The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel) in Pietermaritzburg, Jennifer Anthoo, said the financial predicament that attorneys face is across the board. “A lot of firms have closed. Attorneys had money for rainy days, not a rainy year.”
She added that while things are getting better, it’s not like it was before Covid-19.