LESOTHO’S restive magistrates, who have heard no joy with successive justice and law ministers as well as chief justices, are pinning their hopes on Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane, to resolve their long-standing grievances concerning their welfare and working conditions.
Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) secretary, Masupha Kao, said Justice Sakoane was fully aware of their grievances, adding they have already held some “promising” meetings with him to find lasting solutions to their concerns.
“Justice Sakoane was appointed to his post last November and sometime in December, he met with the three Chief Magistrates (‘Matankiso Nthunya, ‘Makampong Mokgoro and Manyathela Kolobe),” Magistrate Kao in a weekend interview with the Sunday Express.
“He (Sakoane) subsequently held a meeting with JOALE with the same intention of getting a full picture of the magistrates’ problems and getting ideas as to how best they can be resolved.
“While we fully understand that there is a judicial crisis of underfunding from the executive, we are however, encouraged by the determination he has shown to understand and address our problems.
“He is the first chief justice to show such interest in the magistrates. Not long after he was sworn-in, he called us for the meeting. He did not wait for us to come knocking at his door like we did with his predecessors.
“We were supposed to have had follow-up meetings but this was scuttled by the lockdown restrictions. Once the lockdown is over, we are hopeful of meeting again,” added Magistrate Kao.
The country’s 50 plus magistrates have staged three go-slow strikes since 2019, bringing the lower courts to a virtual standstill. Apart from their paltry salaries, the magistrates are unhappy that they are not paid transport, telephone, security and responsibility allowances.
The magistrates were particularly livid with former Justice Minister and Correctional Service Minister, Mokhele Moletsane, who they accused of reneging on commitments to address their grievances. They accused Mr Moletsane of failing to give them feedback from cabinet in 2019 over their request to be each paid a M3000 responsibility allowance.
The chief justice is currently paid a M5000 responsibility allowance while all the other judges get M4000. The magistrates are not paid anything even though the Public Service Commission and the Remuneration and Benefits Board had recommended that they all be paid a flat M3000 each in responsibility allowances.
The magistrates subsequently asked former Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase to urgently convene a constitutional court sitting to adjudicate over what they say is “the unconstitutional scenario” in which they are treated as civil servants in violation of the separation of powers edict between the three arms of government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
However, despite the subsequent change of government from the Thomas Thabane administration to the current Moeketsi Majoro-led coalition, the magistrates’ grievances remain unresolved.
A November 2020 investigation by the Lesotho Times into the working conditions of the magistrates in various districts laid bare the gravity of their situation. It is nothing short of a national crisis which needs to be attended to without further delays.
In Mohale’s Hoek and other districts, the publication observed dire conditions of near-collapsed court buildings in some instances without roofs and windows as these had been blown away by heavy winds more than two years ago.
When a magistrate does not own a car, he or she is forced to jump into a public transport vehicle with people you delivered judgements against, while others are renting the same flats as the litigants whom they preside over their cases.
The Lesotho Times also heard shocking stories of judicial officers who for many years have been operating without stationary and other basic equipment to conduct their duties.
The Likueneng courts on the outskirts of Mohale’s Hoek town are housed in the same dilapidated building made of old clay bricks which appear likely to come crashing down at the slightest hint of strong winds and rain. The windows are broken and the leaking ceiling has let in rain during this and previous rainy seasons.
Upon entering the Likueneng courts, one observes brown soiled court papers stacked against the wall. Whenever it rains- as is currently the case- court officials have to shift court papers to the other side of the building, let alone when there are floods such as during this current rainy season.
Last November, Chief Magistrate Kolobe bemoaned the underfunding of the judiciary. He accused successive governments of prioritising other issues ahead of the judiciary because there were no political benefits to be derived from the judiciary.
But with the coming in of the new chief Justice Sakoane in November 2020, the magistrates have fresh hope that their grievances could finally be addressed.