THE magistrates’ go-slow strike action entered its third week and the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) says they will end the job action when their grievances have been addressed by the government.
The magistrates want the government to address their long-standing demands for higher salaries and better working conditions. They recently wrote to the Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase, asking her to urgently convene the Constitutional Court to adjudicate over what they say is “the unconstitutional scenario” in which they are treated as civil servants. They say their classification as civil servants is in violation of the separation of powers edict between the three arms of government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
Lesotho’s 50 plus magistrates have been on a go-slow since April 2 2019, bringing the lower courts to a virtual standstill. They first launched a similar action in July last year demanding better working conditions.
Apart from their paltry salaries, the magistrates don’t get paid any allowances like transport, telephone, security and responsibility allowances. They particularly worry about their lack of security as they feel exposed to hard core criminals who appear in their courts yet they have to share public transport and living areas with the same criminals.
The magistrates are particularly livid with Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mokhele Moletsane whom they accuse of reneging on commitments to address their grievances. They accuse the minister of not giving them the feedback from cabinet by the promised date of 28 January 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 paid nothing but it is understood that the Public Service Commission and the Remuneration and Benefits Board had recommended that they all be paid a flat M3000 each in responsibility allowances, regardless of class.
Yesterday, JOALE secretary, Masupha Kao, told the Lesotho Times that they have met with the Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase and the Law Society of Lesotho who have both promised to meet the Minister of Justice, Mokhele Moletsane, on their behalf.
“We met with the Justice Mahase last Wednesday who wanted to hear our side of the story and then promised to meet with the minister and then get back to us,” Mr Kao said.
“However, she is a person of stature whom we cannot bother about feedback, so we will await her response.
“We further met with the Law Society of Lesotho yesterday (Tuesday) which also promised to meet the minister, report to their members and then meet us again with the feedback.”
The Lesotho Times has witnessed an anomaly at the Maseru Magistrate Court since 2 April 2019 up to this week when the courts were empty. The Lesotho Correctional Services trucks which bring inmates for remands on daily basis have not been coming since the commencement of the go-slow and even those who had come for remands from home sat at the court premises in dismay as there was no one to explain to them what they ought to do when the Magistrates were not at the court.
Mr Kao said the go-slow would continue until their demands are met saying they “will continue to work with abnormality until we get the answers we need”.
Mr Kao wrote to Justice Mahase on 5 April 2019 seeking her intervention regarding their longstanding grievances.
The magistrates insist that their treatment as civil servants and dependence on the government for salaries and other benefits, albeit elusive ones, is unconstitutional in that it affects the independence of the judiciary.
“Magistrates’ remuneration and other benefits are determined by the executive arm of government through its Ministry of Public Service and it has always been JOALE’s considered view that this is not only unconstitutional but a mockery of the Kingdom’s constitution and erosion of the same independence afforded to courts by the constitution.
“Almost a year ago magistrates, through JOALE, engaged the Ministers of Justice as well as Public Service regarding members’ financial welfare after an outcry by magistrates that their salaries were not only a joke but an insult to them given their responsibilities. Consultations were made and committees formed and magistrates were informed that the last step was for the cabinet to endorse the results (of the consultations).
“Informative meetings were agreed upon between the Minister of Justice and the JOALE executive for purposes of transparency and information sharing. However, on the set dates JOALE executive members went to the minister’s office only to find his secretary who had no information. JOALE then wrote to the minister and while a reply was awaited, it was to the dismay of the magistrates when the minister was heard over one local radio station indicating that he would no longer deal with magistrates but he would deal with them through the Chief Justice only.
“We reiterate that the very existence and purpose of the Magistrates’ Courts is under threat and we feel it is Your Ladyship (Justice Mahase) who is best suited to finally put to rest this centuries’ old unconstitutional administrative setup which not only erodes public confidence in the courts but also undermines the supreme law. It is Your Ladyship who can see to immediate setup of Constitutional Court (sic) to hear and determine this matter which is very important not only to the effective functioning of courts but also to the reinforcement of constitutional concepts of separation of powers and independence of judiciary as some of the principles underlying our constitution,” part of JOALE’s letter to Justice Mahase states.
JOALE further asked Justice Mahase to reopen the negotiations with Mr Moletsane as the magistrates believe an amicable solution could be reached quickly since the negotiations to address their concerns had already progressed since last year.
The Law Society of Lesotho also held a press conference on Monday this week in which it vowed to address the issues affecting the magistrates.
“We only learnt after the commencement of the magistrates’ go-slow that their grievances were no longer being resolved, so that is another issue which was discussed in an urgent meeting which we were forced to hold this (Monday) morning,” Law Society deputy president, Lehlohonolo Matee said.