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Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Court Building

The systems designed to address misconduct in the judiciary are not working effectively. Sexual harassment complaints need to be dealt with swiftly and sensitively, with a victim-centred approach.  An anti-sexual harassment policy which will regulate the conduct of judicial officers, lawyers, prosecutors, court support staff, security guards of the courts and cleaners in the courts, has become vital. This anti-sexual harassment policy should also regulate how complaints of sexual harassment are dealt with in a manner that does not create secondary victimisation.

Whilst it is commendable that the judiciary has been working on producing a sexual harassment policy (a process that has also taken around a year and is still not finalised), a policy is not enough to address the scourge of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment complaints need to be dealt with swiftly and sensitively, with a victim-centred approach

The broken reporting system

When it comes to reporting sexual harassment in the courts, the process is convoluted and often ineffective. The lack of a dedicated policy on anti-sexual harassment exacerbates the problem. Complaints systems, such as those within the Magistrates Commission and Judicial Service Commission, are not designed to handle sexual harassment cases promptly or sensitively.

Effectively addressing sexual violence within the courts

Sexual harassment within the judicial system is a pervasive issue that demands urgent attention. Despite being pillars of justice, courts often fail to adequately address instances of sexual misconduct, leaving victims without recourse and perpetuating a culture of impunity. The reporting mechanisms in place are inadequate, leaving victims feeling marginalised and unsupported. It’s time for meaningful change.

If we are serious about addressing sexual violence, then we need to approach these matters appropriately. Perhaps it is time to consider a new approach. Perhaps what we need is an external, independent body made up of retired judges, lawyers, civil society organisations and others who have been trained in dealing with cases with a victim-centred approach and who are mandated to clear up complaints in a six-month period.

An anti-sexual harassment policy which will regulate the conduct of judicial officers, lawyers, prosecutors, court support staff, security guards of the courts and cleaners in the courts, has become vital. This anti-sexual harassment policy should also regulate how complaints of sexual harassment relating to judicial officers are dealt with in a manner that does not enforce secondary victimisation.

To address this systemic issue, several crucial steps must be taken:

  1. Comprehensive Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy: A dedicated policy must regulate the conduct of all court personnel, outlining clear procedures for reporting and investigating complaints. This policy should prioritise victim-centred approaches to ensure the safety and well-being of survivors.
  1. Swift and Sensitive Response: Time is of the essence when addressing sexual harassment complaints. Quick timeframes for responding to allegations are essential to prevent further harm to victims and promote accountability among perpetrators.
  1. Trained Support Personnel: Each province should have trained officers equipped to assist survivors in navigating the reporting process. These individuals should be capable of taking affidavits in a sensitive manner and guiding complainants to the appropriate channels for resolution.
  1. Establishment of an external independent body: An external, independent body comprising of retired judges, lawyers, civil society organisations and others who will be trained in trauma-centred approaches should be established to manage complaints. This commission should have the authority to expedite investigations and ensure fair and effective resolution within a reasonable timeframe.
  1. Continued existence of a helpline: Often survivors of sexual harassment need phycological support before they are able to make any decisions about lodging complaints. It is imperative that there must at all times be a platform where survivors of sexual harassment are able to get psychological support. Currently the University of Cape Town’s Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) has partnered with LifeLine, Western Cape to provide such support to those in need of it – the helpline number is +27 72 355 2341.

 

Moving forward:

Addressing sexual harassment in the courts is not just a matter of policy; it is a fundamental issue of justice and equality. By implementing comprehensive reforms and fostering a culture of accountability and respect, we can create safer and more equitable court environments for all.

The recent findings from the DGRU underscore the urgency of action. [Read more – link to the Problem piece] The prevalence of sexual harassment among magistrates and court users demands immediate attention from all stakeholders.

As we strive to uphold the principles of fairness and dignity within our judicial system, let us commit to meaningful change. Together, we can create a judiciary that is truly just and inclusive for all.

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