Justice for all elusive: Zuma

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While South Africa has made significant strides in improving access to justice for its citizens, factors such as poverty, lack of education and resources, continued to hinder government from delivering on this constitutional right, says President Jacob Zuma.

Addressing the Access to Justice Conference in Sandton on Friday, Zuma stressed that access to justice was a fundamental and democratic right, and was a central pillar of a free and equal society. Zuma was delivering the keynote address at the conference hosted by Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, together with the heads of court, the state BuaNews agency reports.

He acknowledged that the country had gone a long way since 1994 to ensure that all South Africans had access to justice. The adoption of the Constitution, the equality clause in the Bill of Rights and Chapter 9 institutions had helped achieve that progress, the President noted. Highlighting the obstacles that stood in the way of everyone accessing justice, Zuma touched on the working conditions of judicial officers, which included poor and inadequate support services, a lack of chambers for judges and insufficient courtrooms.
“The other side of the coin is the difficulties for the recipients of justice, especially the poor. Their situation is more desperate because unlike judicial officers, they are powerless and usually cannot solve the conditions they find themselves in,” he said. Poverty was another impediment to the access of justice for a number of people. Many people do not know the law and do not exercise their rights due to “poverty-related lack of education and ignorance.”

There was a need for citizen education about the justice system so that people knew their basic rights, the different courts and structures which they could turn to when they had problems, Zuma said. Access to justice was also hindered by language with some cases being lost due to incorrect interpretation by interpreters, and a lack of transport, which made it difficult for people who lived far from the courts to reach them.

With regards to the efficiency of the court system, Zuma said challenges included the failure to deliver judgments on time; unreasonable delays in finalising cases; unwarranted and unsubstantiated court orders and poorly considered judgments. “All these have the devastating effects on the lives of our people and put strain on state resources too,” he acknowledged.

Zuma cited the lack of communication on cases as a source of frustration. People often travelled long distances only find out that a case had been postponed. Government was exploring ways to ensure that victims of crime attend court sittings when they are fruitfully dealt with in court, he added.

Zuma also noted the court’s commitment to dealing with court backlogs, some judicial staff in the North West even working on Saturdays to address the backlogs. The President also pointed out that the government was involved in a number of initiatives aimed at improving access to justice. The maintenance and Master’s services had been identified as areas that must receive utmost attention, as these issues affected the welfare of people. “We know too well that implementing an effective maintenance recovery and payment system would reduce dependence on the child support grant as more and more working parents will be compelled to support their children,” said Zuma.

More effort was also being put in to turn around the Master’s office to improve services relating to the winding up of estates of the deceased and the administration of insolvent estates. He also noted efforts to cater for access to justice for children, women and civil claims. Zuma also highlighted the need for judicial independence, adding that government remained committed to the independence of the judiciary as entailed in the Constitution, BuaNews said.