Magistrate courts stinking with incomplete trials

 

The country’s magistrate's courts have received bad spotlight as it comes out that they are battling with alarmingly high numbers of trials that fail to finish.

 

It has also been exposed that too many of these were being postponed.

 

These revelations came right at the time when President Hage Geingob, in his call for the speeding up of trials, proclaimed that justice delayed was justice denied.

 

The criminal justice system observes speedy trials as one of the cornerstones of fairness while delays come in time to burden accused persons with emotional trauma as well as deplete state resources.

 

Presently, the high treason trial has broken the record as one of the lengthiest trials ever conducted in independent Namibia and its impact has been felt on the national purse.

 

The precarious state of affairs at the magistrates’ courts can at best be understood if one considers that last year alone, for the period January-September they received a total of 40 396 criminal cases. 

 

However, a total of 19 584 alone of these were completed in the year under review, representing 49%.

 

Chief justice Peter Shivute remarked that the incidence of postponements and incomplete trials was alarmingly high.

 

He conceded that the clearance rate for criminal cases was lower than that for civil cases as far as the two trial courts (the High Court and the Magistrates Courts) are concerned. 

 

“Our analysis shows that that is a function of two inter-related factors.  A judicial officer’s speedy finalisation of a criminal trial depends largely on the cooperation of other actors in the criminal justice system: prosecutors, defence lawyers (especially legal aid appointed counsel) and the completeness of investigations.”

 

“If for whatever reason, either of those actors is not ready, contrary to popular belief, there is very little the court can do to move a case on.  In the extreme case where it is a State actor that is remiss, the court may dismiss a case,” he said.

 

It has also become a concern that the Magistrates Commission has not moved with speed to fill the vacant position of Chief Magistrate.

 

Said Shivute, “We need a person in that position who will re-engineer the magistracy, enforce discipline and change the work ethics.  Courts must start on time and trials have to take place. Judicial officers must be fair but firm. Postponements must not be granted for the asking.”

 

“Firm trial dates must be given and made to hold.  Going forward, I would like to see a very clear strategy and programme of action by the new Chief Magistrate to turn the magistracy around.”

 

The chief justice also came out to break the ice on the perception that the courts were reluctant to deal with cases involving corruption and child trafficking.

 

“As far as the High Court is concerned, I have it on the authority of the Judge President that corruption and child trafficking cases filed at the High Court are prioritised and are allocated trial dates as soon as they are ready for trial,” he said.