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Speaking Notes by Hon. M Mothapo Office of the Chief Justice and Judicial Administration in the National Assembly

07 November 2017

The Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) is still a very young Department - it was allocated its first budget vote as from 1 April 2015. This means the 2016/17 financial year was only the OCJ's second year as a fully-fledged Department.

In executing its mandate, the OCJ supports the Judiciary and Superior Courts. This means a focus on reducing court administration inefficiencie; promoting judicial accountability and providing training to the judiciary though the South African Judicial Education Institute. The OCJ's role in ensuring a transformed justice system, which is accessible to all citizens and which is efficient and effective, is critical. The radical transformation of our justice system must be accelerated.

Audit Issues

Although the OCJ received an unqualified audit opinion in the 2016/17 financial year, this was with findings. Clearly, the Committee would have preferred a clean audit opinion. However, given that this is a relatively new Department some challenges are to be expected. The Auditor-General highlighted certain weaknesses - specifically about the quality of annual performance reports. The OCJ must construct clearer and unambiguous indicators and targets that are aligned to its mandate.

The OCJ has committed to continuous verification of performance information and a new audit methodology at the Superior Courts. The Committee has urged management to monitor progress against an audit action plan to avoid repeat findings. There should also be consequences for officials who transgress in areas of fruitless and wasteful and irregular expenditure.

Court Performance

It is a concern that in 2017/18, all performance indicators and targets for the programme that addresses court performance have been removed, leaving only those that relate to quasi-judicial performance. The OCJ has pointed out its role is limited to reporting on the provision of 'technical and administrative support' to the Judiciary. The Committee is aware that court performance is a judicial function but this does create significant challenges in respect of oversight.

Going forward the Committee intends to engage with the Judiciary about an appropriate mechanism to address accountability for court performance. Apparently, Judicial Committees have been formed this year to develop a framework for monitoring and reporting of judicial functions. This will ensure a structured accountability and reporting by the Judicial Branch of the state. The work of these Committees will be supported by the OCJ.

Budget constraints and vacant posts

The OCJ has reported that due to resource constraints it is unable to fill critical vacant posts to increase much needed capacity to support the courts. In addition, the number of posts at the OCJ is expected to decrease over the medium term because of cabinet-approved reductions for spending on compensation of employees.

While the Committee is acutely aware of the need for fiscal restraint in the current economic climate, it is extremely concerned about the impact of the present funding constraints on the OCJ's ability to deliver on its mandate. As well as the potential effect on the implementation of the Superior Courts Act and service delivery in general.

At present, the most critical area of pressure is for capacity to the Judges President to support judicial functions. These funding constraints have also affected the OCJ's ability to appoint staff for the new Mpumalanga High Court. The establishment and operationalisation of the Mpumalanga High Court is vital for transformation and the promotion of access to justice for those who live in that Province.

The Committee has recommended that additional funds are made available to the OCJ for the operationalisation of the Mpumalanga High Court, as well as for the implementation of the Superior Courts Act, 2013. In particular, for additional capacity to the Judges President.

Language and the courts

The matter of language and the courts continues to be a priority for the Committee. Section 6 of the Constitution 1996 recognises the historically diminished status of indigenous languages. Practical and positive measures must be taken to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages. More needs to be done by all stakeholders to support multi-lingualism in courts. The Committee has suggested previously that SAJEI look at ensuring that judicial officers are provided with training in indigenous African law and languages.

The issue of the use of language in official processes remains a fundamental barrier to access to justice. The Committee remains committed to an approach that allows people to participate in court proceedings in the language that they understand best. It has also raised this matter repeatedly with the Justice Department.

Going forward the Committee intends to arrange to meet with the Chief Justice and Heads of Court to confer on matters of mutual interest, including the advancement of broader transformative issues, impact of case-flow management, implementation of the Superior Courts Act, the court administration model and court performance.

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