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Ensure judicial integrity

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TODAY we report about a senior High Court judge who borrowed a vehicle linked to MKM yet he was presiding over the troubled financial company’s legal cases.

Justice Ts’eliso Monaphathi is said to have admitted to Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla that he had borrowed the vehicle from a “friend” believed to be a senior official at MKM.

There are suspicions the car in question might be registered under the company’s name.

Whatever the case, this is scandalous to say the least.

The stakes in the MKM case are high, considering that money belonging to nearly a third of Lesotho’s population is locked up in the closed company.

MKM was closed by the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) which accused the company of operating insurance and banking businesses without licences.

The CBL is pushing for MKM’s liquidation after auditors appointed by the central bank discovered the company could not account for a huge chunk of depositors’ “investments”.

For a man of Justice Monaphathi’s experience and perceived integrity he should have foreseen the consequences of his actions.

And in such cases the High Court itself is not left untarnished.

Now, he has been forced to recuse himself from MKM cases because his neutrality has become questionable.

The last thing a judge wants is to have his or her impartiality and integrity cast in doubt.

Justice Monaphathi must know it will take a lot for him to redeem himself as a firm and fair judge that we had known him to be.

Yet we hate to say we warned about this.

The learned judge would not have found himself in such a compromising position if the government was ensuring the bench is well-catered for.

We have previously reported how judges, including Justice Monaphathi, were forced either to hitch-hike or to use personal cars when their official vehicles broke down or were taken for service.

Unfortunately some of them might not have personal cars, and because they are held in high esteem, they could have ended up borrowing from other people instead of hitch-hiking.

We don’t know why Justice Monaphathi borrowed his “friend’s” car.

But if his official vehicle was available, we wonder if he would have done so.

Because of the transport problems the judges were facing, cases had either to be delayed or postponed altogether.

And this only exacerbated the crisis for an already struggling judicial system.

The parlous state of the justice administration and delivery system in Lesotho has been chronicled ad nauseum.

The status quo is underscored by a huge backlog of pending court cases dating as far back as the 1990s.

Needless to say the unwarranted delays in dealing with court cases are a serious indictment of our judiciary.

By failing to provide the bench with their statutory entitlements the government is indeed compromising the judiciary.

Failure to avail transport to judges, to put it simply, is an affront to the independence of the judiciary.

Generally we think of judicial independence as the insulation of the judiciary from the legislative and executive arms of state.

But even if the courts are not subjected to influence from the legislature and executive, it does not mean the independence of the judiciary is guaranteed.

Not when judges are poorly paid and do not have everything they need to do their work properly.

When that is the case it means they become vulnerable.

It means they can be at the mercy of corrupt people including ordinary citizens.

What kind of a government allows court judges to beg for lifts from ordinary people?

True we have serious financial problems as a country but there are some areas that we should not compromise.

The welfare of judicial officers is one such area.

What if an influential person with a pending court case surreptitiously offers a judge whose car is unavailable a relief vehicle?

We are not saying our judges must be pampered while the rest of the people struggle to make ends meet.

But we believe judges hold lofty office and deserve to be treated with utmost respect.

That respect includes ensuring they have decent lives and are provided with their statutory entitlements — including vehicles.

This is critical to ensure judges are not forced to engage in activities that might compromise their professionalism and impartiality.

Having reported about the plight of judges we are tempted to sympathise with Justice Monaphathi, but the learned judge should have known better about conflict of interest.

We therefore call on the authorities to spring into action now to ensure nothing of the sort happens again.

By doing that we have no doubt the government will be safeguarding the sanctity and integrity of our courts.

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