The Magistrates Court Surveys: Our Findings
Magistrate’s courts hear an estimated ninety-five percent of all cases in South Africa. (Morné Olivier, 2014). Which means, for many South Africans, the magistracy is the only judiciary they will ever encounter.
Given the importance of the magistracy in providing access to justice, as well as their increasing role as providing judges of the high court, the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) set out to survey magistrates in order to better understand their own perception of their role, and highlight the challenges they are experiencing, so we can be better equipped to support them in their role.
In 2019, the DGRU conducted its inaugural survey of South African Magistrates, investigating their perceptions of their work environment. The research highlighted several challenges that Magistrates face, ranging from high work pressure to inadequate physical infrastructure and administrative support. The research resulted in the first iteration of the Magistrate’s Perception of their Work Environment Report, which can be found HERE.
This 2022 iteration of the survey, just completed, sought to track change in these measures and to introduce a new set of questions relating to issues of concern. Questions in 2019 and 2022 related to workload, administrative and mental health, court infrastructure, safety and security, and stress levels.
New questions in 2022 related to corruption, sexual harassment, and issues relating to career progression.
The 2022 Magistrate’s Perception of their Work Environment Report reveals a magistracy under increasing pressure, both from within and outside it.
SURVEY’S KEY FINDINGS:
WORK PRESSURE, SAFETY, SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND CORRUPTION IN THE MAGISTRACY
Almost a quarter of magistrates have received physical harm or threats in the last 12 months relating to their work, while 16 percent of female magistrates have been sexually harassed or know a magistrate who has been sexually harassed – with the most commonly identified perpetrator being another magistrate.
Perceptions of corruption within the ranks of the judiciary and the magistracy have worsened but remain better than the perceptions of citizens. Nevertheless, the fraction of magistrates being aware of attempted bribery of a magistrate is at 1 in 8, with other magistrates being identified in 1 in 10 cases as the bribe offeror, is cause for concern.
COURT INFRASTRUCTURE AND RESOURCES, MORALE
Reported working hours, court infrastructure and court staff ratings have not improved, and Covid-19 did not yield improved IT and other resources, yet it increased the pressure on magistrates in terms of backlogs created and management of restrictions.
Remuneration and benefits, court infrastructure and resources, morale in the magistracy, and ability to attract and retain the best people, were also identified as major issues in the magistracy. The survey reveals a magistracy under pressure and in need of support and attention to the key issues identified.
This second iteration of the Magistrates’ Perception of their Work Environment Report is coupled with the first iteration of the Court User Survey Report. The Court User Survey Report considers the perceptions of those who make use of the Magistrates Courts in South Africa. You!
This survey of six courts in two provinces provides some insights on the state of South African courts today, from the perspective of users of the courts.
SURVEY’S KEY FINDINGS:
By and large, the findings of this report, reveal that some of the greatest challenges faced by our courts – how court users are treated – have largely been resolved. But there are other growing causes for concern.
SAFETY AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE COURTS
For example, a disquieting number of court users said they were aware of sexual harassment and physical assault in the courts. While this may be a reflection of South African society, courts should be places of safety and not places where people experience similar or greater threats than those faced in ordinary society. Some attention to safety around courts, and safeguards within courts, accordingly appears to be required.
BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION IN THE MAGISTRACY
Corruption and bribery have the potential to undermine the entire project of justice. The extent to which it is noted by court users is concerning. This in turn is related to missing dockets and court files, again suggesting an urgent project to bring order and safeguarding to court records. “Making a file disappear” should neither be a possible nor effective means of subverting justice.
Corruption and bribery have the potential to undermine the entire project of justice. The extent to which it is noted by court users is concerning
Better management of court records, more efficient use of the court day, and courts starting on time, will all likely lead in the long run to a reduction in pressure on the courts while raising the number of finalisations, thus better meeting the unmet demand for justice. This is the task ahead now that other transformation goals appear largely to have been achieved.