Ministry Admits Huge Justice Backlog

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By Petronella Sibeene WINDHOEK Given the prevailing battle to deal with a growing backlog of cases in the lower courts of Namibia, Deputy Minister of Justice Utoni Nujoma has urged the newly appointed members of the Magistrates Commission to find effective ways of dealing with this challenge. The administration of justice in the lower courts has for many years been the subject of criticism ranging from undue delays in finalizing cases to outright failure of justice because of poor judgements. Nujoma who was speaking during the official inauguration of new commissioners for the Magistrates Commission said that his ministry would urgently like to see a reverse of this perception. In June last year, Minister of Justice and Attorney General Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana in her motivational budget statement for 2005/6 revealed that the lower courts were able to finalize a total of 15,419 criminal cases, 1,268 civil cases, 389 labour cases, children’s court 693, marriages 1,349, admissions of guilt 8,033, liquor licences 271 and 466 inquests. Despite what might seems a great success in reducing the number of pending matters, the ministry is still sitting with a huge backlog of cases in all magistrates’ courts due to a combination of factors such as shortage of magistrates, delays occasioned by the delay in the appointment of legal aid counsel due to lack of funds, and further investigations by the police. In its efforts to fight this problem, Nujoma said the ministry is currently running a special programme at the courts to specifically reduce and eliminate this backlog of cases, which is believed to be in the thousands. Apart from that, he revealed that the ministry sought and obtained special budgetary authority to employ magistrates on a two-year contract basis to deal with the problem. Meanwhile, outgoing Chairman of the Magistrates Commission Judge Justice Silungwe told New Era that the ministry has arranged for funding to employ 18 two-year contract magistrates in the country. So far, seven started work on May 1 this year. The remaining 11 will soon be interviewed by the newly appointed commissioners who will assume office with effect from July 1, 2006. He added that the lower courts mostly hard hit by the backlog of cases are Oshakati and Windhoek. The ministry in 2000 revealed that the capital with six criminal courts had a backlog of 2 120 cases. Apart from thatt there was also a huge backlog of civil cases and to a lesser extent district labour court cases. While the outgoing commissioners have had their fair share of teething problems in trying to operationalise a new system, the deputy minister acknowledged the hard work done by the commission in ensuring that issues affecting magistrates are administered in a fair and objective manner. He urged new commissioners to familiarize themselves with the powers and functions and to fearlessly raise any concerns within the commission regarding inaction on any issue. “During your term (three years), the ministry would like to see published detailed procedures for dealing with staff and public complaints expeditiously,” he said. He added that the commission should also have a focused training programme for magistrates and support staff in order to minimize public complaints on the running of affairs at the ministry and improve the standard of justice in all courts. He said, “We would like to see rationalization of the use of existing staff and that the burden of work is carried by all magistrates equally, including the head of stations.” The commission is further expected to critically audit the workload of each magistrate and redistribute the workload fairly across all layers of magistracy. “We have an emergency situation in dealing with the backlog and all have to share the burden to eliminate it in the shortest possible time in order to restore public confidence in the administration of justice,” stressed the deputy minister. Chairman of the newly appointed commissioners Judge Sylvester Mainga informed New Era that there is indeed a problem in the lower judiciary and the training of staff. This would be one area of concentration for the commission. He said, “I am positive we will have a good commission and we are expected to work hard.” He added that there are a lot of issues they will have to rectify. He singled out the need to get rid of the tendency by some magistrates not reading judgements resulting in the same cases being reviewed over and over. Mainga said the commission would deal with the backlog of cases. He believes failure to clear the backlog has been a result of postponing cases which in most cases has led to witnesses disappearing without trace. The incoming commissioners are Christie Liebenberg, Eino Uushona, Nixon Marcus, Kaijata Kangueehi, Axel Kessler and Epafroditus Unengu. The Magistrates Commission ensures that the appointment, promotion, transfer or dismissal of, or disciplinary steps against magistrates take place without favour or prejudice, and that the applicable laws and administrative directives in this regard are applied uniformly and correctly.