Practice: Business group challenges courts 'shut-down'

Lobby group Sakeliga is demanding intervention by the Chief Justice, Magistrates’ Commission, and Minister of Justice in the lower courts where some magistrates are reportedly still refusing to entertain any opposed matters or trials due to lockdown regulations. In a letter of demand on the Legalbrief Today site, Sakeliga writes that it is well-known that Magistrate’s Courts nationwide are the most cost-effective tribunals for run-of-the-mill commercial matters and other disputes, but it has been brought to their attention that magistrates in the Tshwane district, and possibly others, are refusing to hear argument in, or to adjudicate, opposed matters.

This is ostensibly done in response to the restrictive Covid-19 measures. A directive is attached, stating which matters will be heard. It includes endorsement of settlement agreements and unopposed matters, but no opposed matters. ‘We are of the view that refusing to adjudicate opposed matters is a gross violation of litigants’ constitutional rights. The prohibition is also unreasonable and irrational since opposed matters do not create any additional risk in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic,’ the letter reads. It notes that lawyers use the same courtroom for unopposed matters and opposed matters simultaneously, but the latter simply gets postponed. The business group alleges that the status quo creates a situation where litigants could oppose matters merely to delay justice indefinitely. Litigants wait months to be assigned dates, only to have to start again.

Legal practitioners are also badly affected, given the current harsh economic environment, notes Legalbrief. 'Traditionally it is especially younger counsel and attorneys who make a living from Magistrate’s Court matters. The economic survival and access to the cut-throat industry of these young individuals are now seriously threatened.’ According to Sakeliga, it appears as if the situation is not limited to Tshwane and the matter will be investigated. Sakeliga says the letter is written in an attempt to avoid litigation, but if no response is received by 6 August, the lobby group would approach the High Court for appropriate relief.

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