Judiciary plunged into fresh crisis

Lesotho Times
14 Min Read
  • as LEC switches off High Court over M1, 4 million debt,
  • paltry M19 million budget allocation not enough to fund all courts’ operations

Mohalenyane Phakela / Moorosi Tsiane

OPERATIONS at the High Court and its Commercial Division in Maseru were this week paralysed after the Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) abruptly cut power supplies due to the judiciary’s failure to pay a M1, 4 million power bill.

The power utility company cut off supplies on Monday, leaving the courts in darkness. Cases that were on the roll for this week could not be heard at all. Some of the courtrooms are constructed in such a way that they remain dark inside even during daytime as outside light cannot filter in. Moreover, without electricity, it is impossible to record the sessions and even heat up the rooms which are beginning to get cold as temperatures drop.

The most prominent of the cases that failed to proceed was that of civil servants who have petitioned the High Court to grant them permission to stage a protest march to force the government to award them massive 25 percent salary increments for the 2022/23 financial year which begins tomorrow.

On Tuesday, the presiding judge, Justice Molefi Makara, even proposed to hear the matter at his private residence in Florida, Maseru, due to its urgency.  He heard the application at his home on Tuesday and ordered the two parties to go and negotiate an out-of-court settlement.

This is not the first time that the judiciary’s operations have been paralysed over unpaid electricity bills.

In February 2021, the Maseru Magistrates’ Court was forced to suspend operations after its power supplies were switched off for several weeks over a M1, 3 million debt. Electricity was only restored to the courts after the debt was paid.

This time around the judiciary owes the LEC M1 391 442, 70 for power supplies.

The Lesotho Times this week saw two letters written by the LEC Managing Director, Mohato Seleke, to the judiciary.

Both letters are dated 24 March 2022. In them, Mr Seleke states that they have had to cut off power due to the judiciary’s failure to pay M734 582, 29 and M656 860, 37 (M1 391 442, 70 in total) for the High Court and its Commercial Division respectively.

“We regret to inform you that your power supply has been disconnected for failure to settle the outstanding amount referenced in the subject (M734 582, 29 and M656 860, 37),” Mr Seleke states.

“We acknowledge your last payment received but there has been no substantial disbursement made ever since the escalating total outstanding balance which ideally does not have to go beyond 30 days. We shall be pleased to restore services immediately on full payment of the amount(s) shown above plus the M1150 reconnection fee.”

Over and above the outstanding M1 391 442, 70, Mr Seleke states that the judiciary has to pay another M49 067, 76 for the High Court and another M25 396, 84 for the Commercial Division which are bills for March 2022. These amounts are due today.

High Court and Court of Appeal Registrar, ‘Mathato Sekoai, confirmed that their operations had ground to a halt due to the power cut on Monday.

“Most of our (High Court) courtrooms cannot access sunlight and the High Court’s proceedings have to be recorded so we have had to suspend the operations from Monday when the electricity was cut,” Advocate Sekoai said.

She said they were frantically working to secure funds to pay up to enable them to resume their normal operations.

“We are not sure as to when the power will be restored and each day we are hopeful we will have a breakthrough.

“The LEC debt has been accumulating over the years and we have been servicing it. But this time around we’ve been unable to clear it due to budgetary constraints. We have never ignored the debt but we are constrained by our low budget. We need to get money to clear the entire debt.

“Our only concern is the LEC timing. They opted to cut us off when the government financial books have been retired as the (2021/2022) financial year has just ended. However, we are trying to make efforts to have our electricity restored. There are some payments that we recently made but these are not reflecting as having been deducted from our debt. Therefore, our accountant is engaging the LEC on the issue whilst we also try to secure funds to pay the entire debt,” Adv Sekoai added.

She bemoaned the perennial underfunding of the judiciary, saying the M118 207 676 they have been allocated for the 2022/2023 fiscal year will not be enough to cover the entire judiciary’s expenses from April 2022 to March 2023.

She said of that budget, M99 207 680 was for salaries, meaning that only M19 million remained to cover the operating costs of all the courts- from the High Court down to the subordinate courts countrywide.

“Before the beginning of each financial year, we are given a ceiling which we must never exceed when presenting our budget demands. This time that ceiling was M118 207 676 (for the 2022/23 financial year). But this is not enough to cover the expenses of all the courts.

“Last year we were allocated M107 million from which M96 million was for salaries. We only had M11 million for operating costs and therefore were forced to seek an additional M39 million to cover other expenses.

“We have asked for an additional M19 million for the 2022/23 financial year. This is intended to cover the operating costs of the Tšifa-li-mali High Court in Leribe and the Maseru High Court. As things stand, four chambers in this (Maseru High Court) building are not in use.

“Justices (Molefi) Makara and (Tšeliso) Monapathi have had to relocate chambers due to the leaking roof. Courtrooms five and seven are unusable when it’s raining because of the leaking roof. There are so many problems affecting the judiciary, some of which we have ignored due to lack of funding. I am sure people cannot remember the last time the lifts were working here.

“The seven new judges who were recently appointed will soon start work and we need to cater for their renumeration. They also need vehicles as well as office space. The Tšifa-li-mali court also needs support staff. The court complex also needs a recording system and internet connection. Failure to install the internet and a recording system will render the Tšifa-li-mali Court Complex a white elephant and the judges hired to operate from there will just be paid without working because High Court proceedings need to be recorded. We have a very serious financial challenge,” Adv Sekoai said.

The Tšifa-li-mali Court Complex was constructed in 2003 but it has remained a white elephant due to the absence of judges. In March 2021, the government installed furniture worth M2, 5 million and three weeks ago, the judiciary hired seven new judges who are yet to be sworn-in by King Letsie III.

These include former northern region Chief Magistrate, ‘Makampong Gugu Mokhoro, former Ombudsman Tšeliso Joakim Mokoko, former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s daughter, ‘Mabatšoeneng Grace Hlaele (nee Nkoya Thabane), former magistrates, ‘Mafelile Patricia Ralebese and ‘Maliepollo Makhetha. Prominent lawyers, Hopolang John Nathane and Moneuoa Stephen Kopo also made the cut.

Adv Sekoai last week said that two of the seven new judges will be deployed to Leribe while the other five will be stationed in Maseru.

The paralysis of the High Court and its Commercial Division are merely one aspect of the judicial crisis which has been playing out over the years due to perennial underfunding by the government.

In December 2020, investigations by this publication established that magistrates’ courts and other lower courts in most districts around the country were either completely dysfunctional or teetering on the brink of collapse due to years of underfunding by the government.

All in all, Lesotho has 10 districts namely, Maseru, Berea, Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek, Qacha’s Nek, Quthing, Butha-Buthe, Thaba-Tseka, Mokhotlong and Leribe.

Each of the districts has eight lower courts starting with the magistrates’ court, then the central and local courts. Except for Maseru, each district has one magistrates’ court and one central. The number of local courts, which are the first courts of instance, varies from district to district depending on the population size of the district.

For example, in Mohale’s Hoek, there is the magistrates’ court, central court and six local courts, bringing the total number of courts to eight. These courts’ operations are all funded by a quarterly subvention given to them by the government via the chief magistrates in each region. The regions are classified as central, south and northern.

According to magistrates and other court officials who spoke to this publication at the time of the investigation, for several years, the government used to allocate quarterly budgets ranging from M150 000 to M200 000 per district for the running of the lower courts.

Although not enough, the funds enabled the courts to pay for basic services like electricity, heating during cold seasons, transport for court officials as well as stationary for use in preparing dockets, summons and other court documents.

But since 2017 the budget allocations had been severely reduced and during the first quarter of 2020 for example, the Mohale’s Hoek district was given a paltry M18 793 to cover operating expenses of eight courts. Again, in the second quarter from July to September 2020, the magistrates’ court, central court and six other local courts in Mohale’s Hoek had to share a paltry M18 265, 14.

The first and second quarters allocations for the 2020/21 financial year translated to a measly average of M2349, 13 and M2283, 13 per court respectively.

Not surprisingly, with such paltry allocations, most courts had either stopped operating or were experiencing serious challenges in offering services to the public.

In October 2020, then Justice and Law Minister Professor Nqosa Mahao had alluded to the problem saying his countrywide tour had revealed that most courts were struggling due to shortages of human and material resources as a result of underfunding by the government.

Thereafter, a week-long investigative tour of various districts by the Lesotho Times laid bare the gravity of the situation.

In Mohale’s Hoek and other districts, this 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.

The Lesotho Times crew also heard shocking stories of judicial officers who for many years had been operating without stationary and other basic equipment to conduct their duties.

The situation remains unchanged in most districts.

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