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Fresh trouble for Sekoai

Nat Molomo

MASERU — IT never rains but pours for ‘Mathatho Sekoai, the former High Court and Court of Appeal registrar.
In one week she has lost her job and is about to lose another one before she even starts it.
On Wednesday she was told that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had decided to demote her from being the administrative head of Lesotho’s court to the position of Chief Magistrate South in charge of Qacha’s Nek, Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing and Mafeteng.
This was after High Court judges had mounted an unprecedented campaign to force Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla to fire her on charges that she is corrupt, incompetent, disrespectful and arrogant.
The chief justice had reluctantly sent Sekoai on leave to make way for investigations into the allegations.
When she arrived at the Palace of Justice from her month-long forced leave on Monday, judges boycotted the court and vowed not to hear cases until she is sacked or transferred from the High Court.
Faced with a hostile bench that was threatening to bring the High Court on its knees, Chief Justice Lehohla then extended Sekoai’s forced leave on Monday morning.
This time she did not have to be away for long because on Wednesday the JSC decided to redeploy her.
It was a victory for the judges and a blow to Sekoai who sees herself as a victim of the internal strife at the High Court.
With Sekoai out of the way, the saga that had rocked the High Court for the past two months seemed to have ended.
But when magistrates heard that Sekoai had been appointed chief magistrate of the southern region they started a battle of their own.
They are now trying to block Sekoai’s appointment, arguing that it was not above board and that she lacks the experience to be a chief magistrate.
On Thursday morning the magistrates wrote a letter to the JSC threatening to embark on a strike if Sekoai starts her new role as the chief magistrate on February 13 as her redeployment letter had indicated.
The letter was written on February 9, a day after the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (Joale), an organisation of almost all magistrates in the country, had convened an emergence meeting to discuss Sekoai’s appointment.
The magistrates complain that the job to which Sekoai was deployed had not been advertised as required by the law.
This, they said, has disadvantaged other deserving candidates because they never got a chance to compete for the job.
The magistrates also argue that although Sekoai was the administrative head of the judiciary they were of the “honest and firm conviction” that she is not qualified to be a chief magistrate because she has no experience as a magistrate.
“The position of chief magistrates requires a very senior magistrate who has experience as a judicial officer,” the magistrates said.
They warned that in the past the JSC “appointed an officer who had no judicial experience to the position of resident magistrate and this has had disastrous consequences”.
They said because the judicial decision of a chief magistrate is exempt from automatic review by the High Court the position requires a person whose judgments have been “tried and tested”.
“There is no dispute that Sekoai has no iota of judicial experience,” the magistrates charged.
The magistrates are also angry that Sekoai has been redeployed despite the pending investigations against her for alleged corruption.
“There is precedence that persons who are facing criminal investigations do not qualify for nomination to the judicial office before their names are cleared.”
Currently, the magistrates added, Sekoai has not been cleared of the allegations of corruption.
They recommend that the JSC should consider reversing Sekoai’s appointment and that the position should be advertised.
“We recommend that Sekoai should not assume her perceived judicial duties on Monday 13th February 2012, failing which we shall embark on a protest action”.
The magistrates’ hard-line stance gives more headaches to the chief justice who has just come out of a bruising battle with High Court judges over Sekoai.
A strike by magistrates will further cripple the judicial system which is already reeling from internal squabbles and a serious cash crisis.
Morale at the Palace of Justice has hit a new low with junior staffers complaining about everything from their low salaries to the lack of small things like toilet paper.
Judges complain about the lack of replacement vehicles, stationery and computers.
The High Court is not paying judges’ maids and gardeners as stipulated in their conditions of service.
While the courts grapple with a financial crisis and staff unrest the backlog of cases continues to mount in the High Court and the magistrates’ courts.
The crisis in the judiciary has triggered calls for the chief justice to resign.
Law Society of Lesotho president Zwelakhe Mda this week said the chief justice must be removed because he has failed to run the judiciary.

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