Magistrates’ courts doing well under difficult conditions

Fungai Lupande Court Reporter
The magistrates’ courts deserve praise for their indefatigable efforts in easing the criminal case backlog, which has seen Harare come up tops year after year.

Their efforts are not going unnoticed as every year Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku has given the magistrates’ courts a pat on the back for the good work.

The backlog has clogged the judiciary system for the past few years and had become a cause for concern.

It is commendable that the courts are fighting their backlog, because prolonged court cases are disappointing, not only to the accused persons, but also the complainants and witnesses.

Court business takes precedence over any other life issue. Even when grieving, expecting or expected to attend to something important, a person is required to attend court first on stipulated dates and time. It is the court that decides to excuse the accused or witness to deal with other issues if it finds it fitting.

Finding yourself in the dock takes away certain privileges. Many a time the accused persons are required to surrender their travel documents. One is also expected to present herself or himself to the police and the court on chosen days.

This process is frustrating to business people, professionals or politicians and even to ordinary people. And when the matter takes long before completion it can be devastating. Those who seek justice in the courts expect to have their cases determined timely.

When magistrates and judges work hard to have matters heard and completed in time, despite poor working conditions, it is a relief, not only to the judiciary system but to litigants. A number of issues contribute to backlog and these include lack of case management.

Court officials should be supervised especially magistrates and prosecutors if there is to be accountability.

Cases are supposed to be completed within a reasonable time. For example, in regional courts, rape cases are supposed to be completed within three days. Court starting time is also important in this battle. Often times magistrates sit through tea breaks and lunch to work on their cases.

The magistrates’ courts are now open on Saturdays, and despite poor remuneration court officials prioritise their work.

It is important that prosecutors are able to manage their witnesses and be able to bring those appropriate for the case. Some witnesses are professionals; although witness expenses are catered for by the State, they are always rushing somewhere.

Another issue that contributes to backlog is unavailability of witnesses. Witnesses change addresses without notifying the police or court, making it difficult to subpoena them to court.

Also other accused persons on bail abscond court and are issued with warrants of arrest, meaning that particular case takes longer to be completed. Nowadays, the magistrates’ courts have an effective complaints procedure.

This means members of the public who are not satisfied with the way their matters are being handled are free to approach the complaints office. Magistrates and prosecutors are not spared from the scrutinising eyes of the public. No one wants to be exposed and each person is doing the best they can.

Magistrates and judges are not in this fight alone, other stakeholders like police, prisons and lawyers help them to reduce the backlog. These are the key players in justice delivery and their collective efforts ensure justice is delivered more expeditiously and effectively. Lawyers work hard to assist the court in quickly concluding matters at the same time making sure that justice is not hurried. They also want to ensure their clients’ cases are dealt with in time and by so doing they aide the fight against backlog. This is when lawyers refuse to have matters remanded unnecessarily or fight to have their clients removed from remand.

People know this part of an old adage which says, justice delayed is justice denied but it is completed with the following phrase, “justice hurried is justice buried”.

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