This issue contains two stories that point to a shocking breakdown in the justice system. There is, of course, something quite funny about a woman being annoyed to find that her fake divorce order is being questioned, but the consequences of being able to buy court orders should not be underestimated. Especially not if you consider that the high court has the power to dissolve marriages, decide custody disputes, put individuals and corporations into liquidation, attach property, issue interdicts, determine civil claims of any amount, and adjudicate the most serious of offences. The story of a police officer removing a docket, seemingly to ensure that the accused is released on bail may sound a bit old hat, but it is no less shocking.
We could have brought you a number of other stories. There’s the Johannesburg attorney who phoned in a state of rage to say that it now takes a full four months even to get a default judgment at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court – in other words, a judgment against someone who hasn’t bothered to oppose the claim. This process can be speeded up, but a bribe needs to be paid. Then there’s the Cape Town trauma counsellor who called in a terrible state, to say that a rape victim he has been counselling is suicidal, following the ferocious cross-examination she had to endure in court from defence counsel – which the inexperienced and totally uninterested prosecutor did nothing to curtail – and the inevitable acquittal of the man she claims raped her. The counsellor, who has worked closely with the police for years, told noseweek that, though he has always been very supportive of the police, he can no longer deny the fact that the force is now totally dysfunctional. As an example, he described how a high-profile murder investigation in Muizenberg has been all but abandoned, despite the fact that the police have a pretty good idea who did it. Why? Because the officer in charge of the investigation simply doesn’t have the confidence, experience or nous to call the suspect in for questioning. According to the counsellor, the calibre of many of our police officers is such that they simply won’t pursue anyone who they know can retain an attorney. And finally, there’s the Cape Town man who told us that, when he tried to lay a charge of assault, he was told in no uncertain terms by a police officer not to pursue the case because the assailant would simply file a (spurious) counter-charge of racial abuse.
You don’t, of course, have to be in the law to know what a mess the legal system is in. The shameful appointment of Menzi Simelane as National Director of Public Prosecutions has been widely reported. And who can forget the antics of Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe. Indeed the seemingly endless manipulation of the legal system, by those who have the resources (usually public servants using, one suspects, public funds) to ensure that their day in court never comes. And few will have missed the irony of a government, that can offer its traumatised citizens nothing more than slogans like “zero tolerance” and “shoot to kill”, somehow finding extra resources to ensure that no one offends Fifa and its sponsors around World Cup time.
Old-timers will tell you that it wasn’t like this in the old days. They conveniently overlook the fact that in the old days the legal system was seriously tainted and discredited by the political system within which it operated. But, even in those days, the legal system had some semblance of legitimacy. It no longer has even that. Lawyers are rightly concerned, and everyone else should be too!
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