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Bankrupt judiciary a cause for concern

“TENSIONS and alienation creep in when little or grossly inadequate financial resources are allocated to the administration of justice in the government’s budget –and the judiciary is relegated to the position of a ‘mendicant’ (beggar) in order to keep the court system on an even keel.”

Those were the words of Justice Semapo Peete in a paper he presented at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) workshop in Maseru last week.

In his paper Justice Peete dares to talk about issues that judges in Lesotho rarely want to utter a word about.

The judge was merely giving a general analysis yet we see ample examples of what he is talking about in our judiciary.

Our judicial sector is understaffed and so under-resourced that it literally has to beg the treasury to keep things going. 

For the past three months the judiciary has been in a near state of crisis because the courts do not have money to buy basic stationery.

Judges can’t print judgments because there are no ink cartridges.

There is no ink for stamps.

Pens and paper are scarce commodities at the courts.

And it gets even scarier.

Lawyers hired by the state to represent people who can’t afford their own legal representatives have not been paid.

Some judges are struggling to get to work because their cars have broken down and no replacements have been provided. 

The situation is said to be worse at the magistrate’s court where criminal cases have been halted because there is no money for transport and food allowances for witnesses.

There, lawyers are owed money as well.

This is a scandal.

That our judiciary has to struggle to get basics is a serious indictment on the government.

We hear the authorities had to go cap-in-hand to the government to get a miserly M11 million to plug the holes temporarily.

But authorities there admit that even that rescue package is not enough to see the courts through to the next financial year. 

When the cash runs out these problems will return and the High Court and magistrate’s courts will be in a state of paralysis again.

Justice Peete says: “The inevitable result of persistent failure to address the needs of the judiciary is that the scourge of corruption rears its ugly head and bribery set in.”

We can’t agree more.

A judiciary that lives from hand to mouth is “beholden” to the government.

Such a relationship poses grave danger to the independence, impartiality, credibility and integrity of our courts.

When these four virtues are eroded people lose confidence in the judiciary, creating a fertile ground for chaos and even anarchy.

Also, by starving the courts of basic resources the government is undermining justice delivery in the country.

They are throwing spanners into the wheels of justice that are already painfully slow.

The backlog of cases in our courts runs into thousands.

In his paper Justice Peete also says judicial officers must be well paid so that they are not corrupted.

He says the government must not politicise the judiciary and influence the appointment of judges on the bench. 

Although Justice Peete was not talking about Lesotho, per se, it suffices to say that all these are quite relevant to our situation here in Lesotho.

That our judges and judicial officers are the lowest paid in the region is not a secret.

There is no proof that our judges and judicial officers are being corrupted because they are grossly underpaid but the absence of evidence should not fool us into believing that it’s not happening.

“Inadequate or unsatisfactory remuneration of the judicial officers often renders some (certainly not all) very vulnerable to corrupt influence by unscrupulous litigants,” the judge says.

It is clear that we can only ignore the judge’s concerns at our own peril.

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