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Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, for the Budget Vote Debate – Vote 25: Justice and Constitutional Development, National Assembly, 17 May 2022

House Chairperson,
Honourable Minister Ronald Lamola,
Deputy Minister for Correctional Services, Nkosi Pathekile Holomisa,
Members of the Executive,
Chairperson and Members of the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services,
Honourable Members,
The Director-General, Adv Mashabane, and officials of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development,

When we were in Delft on the Cape Flats this past Friday, at a justice services imbizo as part of our Year of the Community programme, we were once again reminded of the vital importance of government being visible and active within our communities.   The best way to know what communities are experiencing and what they require is to hear it directly from them.

In the same way that Parliament conducts oversight work, government departments should monitor the situation within our communities. Where things are not working, we need to know and we need to address it without delay.

It was for this reason that I conducted two unannounced oversight visits to the Master’s Offices earlier this year together with the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Legal Practice Council.   I wanted to establish, first hand, how well these offices were functioning, whether practitioners and the public were being served timeously and professionally, whether existing backlogs have decreased and whether there have been improvements in terms of the issuing of Letters of Executorship and Letters of Authority.

It is common knowledge that complaints and concerns have been directed to the Department regarding service delivery issues at the various Master’s Offices.  

The Master’s Offices are responsible for the administration of liquidations and deceased estates, the registration of trusts and the administration of the Guardian’s Fund.   This often means serving the most vulnerable members of our communities, such as the widowed, families who have lost loved ones and children and the elderly in particular.  

These unannounced visits are part of our efforts to constantly keep monitoring service delivery at these offices. I will continue with unannounced visits at various Master’s Offices until we see a very clear improvement in service delivery.

The Master’s Offices are currently, together with the Information System Management (ISM), working on an online registration of deceased estates as well as online registration of trusts system.  The development and roll out of online registrations will be a convenient method that allows people who want to report deceased estates or register trusts, to do so remotely from their offices, homes, or any other place.

This approach will effectively reduce the number of customers having to travel to the offices of the Master or to the various service points, and will enhance access to the Masters’ services in the country. Online registration will also speed up the registration process and ensure quicker availability of the particulars of beneficiaries and trustees.

However, I cannot say that I am at all satisfied with the performance of the Master’s Offices and expect that a lot more will be done and improved - in particular with regard to file management and responding to queries from clients.

The process to revisit and amend the Administration of Estates Act of 1965 in totality, so as to allow for modernization and keeping up with electronic developments in the country, has already started in the past  financial year.

Similarly, the process to amend the Trust Property Control Act of 1988 to allow for modernization also commenced in the last financial year. This will allow the Master to obtain and keep more of the information needed to curb fraud and money laundering. 

In addition to the Master’s Offices, another area of serious concern to me is the functioning of our Magistrates’ Courts.  Infrastructure and maintenance are on-going challenges and the Minister and I have met with the Minister and Deputy Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure in this regard.

As I mentioned in the OCJ Budget Vote debate last week, court performance and efficiency are, to a large degree, within the purview of the judiciary. But there are many areas of responsibility which are that of the Department and where our performance can and should be improved.

The issue of faulty Court Recording Technology (CRTs) and Sexual Offences Systems (SOS) is one which I have raised with the Department on numerous occasions and an issue which I am monitoring closely.

During the last quarter of the previous financial year, the Department experienced major setbacks within the IT space. Contract positions of IT personnel and service providers came to an end at almost the same time and this left our systems vulnerable.  As a result of that, our Court Recording Systems and the Sexual Offences Systems were affected and this forced courts to postpone cases.

The problem was not that the procurement was started late, but that there were problems with the procurement processes which then caused considerable delays.   Since early February, a service provider has been appointed and is attending to repairs and maintenance of our CRTs and SOS in the courts.

Parallel to this process, the procurement process for a long-term solution is underway. The Accounting Officer is also conducting an investigation and will take appropriate disciplinary steps where necessary.

With regards to case backlogs, and specifically those aspects which form part of our Department’s responsibility, the Department has developed an Action Plan to be implemented immediately to address those challenges impacting on court efficiency which fall within the Department’s mandate.

During the current financial year, the Department will work with all the JCPS cluster departments to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding that will see each department crafting a performance indicator in their own Annual Performance Plans which will contribute towards reducing the case backlogs.

Our Action Plan includes interventions such as overtime work, backlog courts to be established where feasible, regular  meetings with service providers e.g. the CRT service providers, the provision of additional human resources, psycho-social support for court officials to improve on the rate of absenteeism, regular repair and maintenance meetings where the Regional Heads and ISM meet with service providers every Wednesday to track progress, the procurement of additional IT equipment and facilities interventions such as procurement of portable battery packs and generators, facilitation of the carrying out of minor maintenance works and procurement of mobile units to be used as court rooms and testifying rooms.

The current initiatives being developed still have to be discussed with the Lower Court Judiciary and consultation with the respective judicial forums will be taking place soon.

There is a need to establish a platform for an interface between existing judicial reporting structures – both National and Provincial - to engage in on-going consultations and feedback to ensure meaningful interactions and to ensure the required support from the Department.

Magistrates Courts are at the very coalface of our justice system. It is vital that these courts, which are often the first port of call for the dispensing of justice, are well-capacitated and functioning optimally. The Minister made 158 new Magistrates’ appointments in vacancies around the country.  These magistrates assumed their duties on 1 October last year and the filling of these vacancies is an important step in capacitating our judicial officers and our courts, so as to enable them to deliver justice to all.

Chairperson,

Our Department has begun the process of consolidating and rationalizing the provincial offices to act as one department and not several independent units. Corporate services will be offered under one roof to the Masters, the Family Advocates and the State Attorney instead of sourcing the same from the National Office as this is expensive and delays the provision of services.

Furthermore, in line with the President’s vision of bringing government services closer to the people and cutting down on wastage and duplication, our Department plays an active part in the District Development Model.

Honourable Members,

Our Small Claims Courts improve access to justice and make civil justice inexpensive, less formal and accessible to those who cannot afford litigation in the ordinary civil courts.

These courts are used to settle minor civil disputes and claims of up to R20 000 between parties without representation by an attorney, in an informal manner. 

In 1994, at the dawn of our democracy, these courts were still mostly in white and urban areas.  Today we have 415 Small Claims Courts countrywide.  With the additional 49 places of sitting, there are 464 places where Small Claims Court sittings can be held.  

We currently have 2009 Commissioners, of these 239 are Legal Aid SA practitioners and 98 are Magistrates who also sit as Commissioners, after hours and at no extra remuneration.

We want to thank all the Small Claims Court Commissioners, many of whom are private legal practitioners, for this service they provide free of charge to the community and to ensure access to justice for all.

We are pleased to advise that the Rules Board has made new Rules for the Small Claims Courts. The new Rules aim to address areas where the current Rules are deficient and will greatly assist litigants in the Small Claims Court. Upon the gazetting of the new Rules, they will be tabled in Parliament.

Chairperson,

As the world celebrates the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia – or IDAHOT, as we know it - today I want to add the voice and the support of government in acknowledging this important day – which is today.

The date of May 17th was specifically chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision, in 1990, to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. IDAHOT was created to draw the world’s attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics.

We are pleased with the work of our National Task Team on the Protection of the Rights of LGBTIQ Persons, with its Rapid Response Team which is monitoring and tracking hate crimes against LGBTIQ persons in the criminal justice system.

The National Intervention Strategy provides the framework that informs the functioning of the NTT to counter violence and discrimination that is grounded on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics in South Africa.   We have recently reviewed the NIS and expanded the scope of human rights violations to be monitored and addressed beyond those of hate crimes only - so as to also include discrimination and hate speech.

I also want to congratulate Gender Dynamix and Iranti on their successful bid to host ILGA World in Cape Town in 2024.

At the end of last year, we hosted a very successful international policy dialogue on the Rights of Transgender and Intersex Persons and we look forward to building on the successes of that event.

Honourable Members, the decriminalization of sex work is specifically mentioned in the National Strategic Plan on GBVF. Pillar 3 of the NSP contains a list of key interventions, key activities and indicators. One of the key activities is, and I quote, “finalization of legislative process to decriminalise sex work – fast-tracking and promulgation.”

Currently the selling and buying of sexual services are criminalised in our country.  There are various different policy options to consider with a view to legislative reform and I have been engaging with key stakeholders on the form that this reform should take.

We hope to be able to take a Bill to Cabinet soon which will be published for public comment before returning to Cabinet for approval and introduction into Parliament.

The issue of decriminalization may be a contested one, but is also one that needs to be debated and a decision taken, as the issue has been one which has been delayed for far too long.

Finally, Chairperson, we have recently concluded a Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding between our Department, the Department of Basic Education and the South African Human Rights Commission regarding the National Schools Moot Court Competition Programme. The MoU signing ceremony will take place tomorrow.

The first annual National Schools Moot Court Competition took place in 2011. It has turned out to be a ground-breaking event and we can look back with pride over the past 11 years, when we acknowledge the success of this competition in constitutional awareness and human rights education.

Chairperson,

These are but some of the many programmes, interventions and initiatives undertaken by our Department to make access to justice and the attainment of human rights for all a reality.

As we take these programmes to our communities, I want to thank the Portfolio Committee for its invaluable feedback and recommendations in assisting us to better the lives of people and the justice system as a whole.

In the time left, I want to respond to the Hon Yako, who is once again is making wide-ranging allegations without substance. I unfortunately don’t have time left to respond to all of them, but regarding the Minister’s role in the appointment of Acting Constitutional Court judges, please can the Hon Yako go and read section 175(1) of the Constitution.

Section 175(1) very clearly states that the President may appoint a woman or a man to serve as an acting Deputy Chief Justice or judge of the Constitutional Court if there is a vacancy in any of those offices, or if the person holding such an office is absent. The appointment must be made on the recommendation of the Cabinet member responsible for the administration of justice - in others words, the Minister of Justice - acting with the concurrence of the Chief Justice. The Hon Yako voices lots of complaints, but it really doesn’t help peoples’ understanding of the correct processes. 

I thank you.