MAGISTRATES’ courts are being forced to share paltry amounts as low as M500 to fund their operations in a shocking development that is likely to plunge the troubled judiciary into further crisis.
So bad is the situation that for instance, the country’s 12 courts in the Mafeteng district have to share a measly M539 to cover their operating costs for three months. This means that on average each court will get M44, 91.
The shocking development was revealed this week by the Chief Magistrate for the Northern Region, Makampong Mokhoro, at a press briefing in Maseru which was organised by the Judicial Association of Lesotho (JOALE). Ms Mokhoro also said that the judiciary urgently needs an additional M14 million to complement the M99 547 000 which it was allocated for the 2019/20 financial year if it is to effectively deliver justice.
She said the additional budget is especially needed in the subordinate courts which have to operate on a shoe-string budget of just M539 per quarter.
Ms Mokhoro said no new cases are being registered in the subordinate courts which include the magistrates’ courts, central and local courts due to the absence of the court registers and subpoenas.
She said it is impossible for the subordinate courts to operate on a budget of M539 to cover the operational costs of as much as 12 courts in one district per quarter.
The central region covers the Maseru and Thaba Tseka districts, the northern region covers Berea, Leribe, Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong while the southern region covers Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing and Qacha’s Nek.
Ms Mokhoro said from the M99 547 000 allocated to the judiciary in the 2019/20 budget, salaries of judicial officers totalled M89 109 376 while rent for the courts was M3 139 000.
“The remaining balance is M7 298 624 which has to be divided among 81 courts across the country which include the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Magistrate’s Courts, the Judicial Commissioners Court (Judicomm) and the local courts among others.
“The situation is very bad to a point that the subordinate courts will not be able to function due to the lack of funds needed for stationery such as court registers and subpoenas. These have to be printed at the Government Printers in order to bear the coat of arms and for each subpoena to have a unique number.
“For instance, Quthing has seven local courts which have to share M591, 50 while Mafeteng has been allocated M539 to share among its 12 courts to cover their operating costs for three months.
“The Judicomm is a mobile court which has to move around the country to hear appeals in the local courts but it is also expected to function with a budget of M36 967 for the entire year. Within the judicial system, the only people with benefits are judges (High Court) who have allowances of water (M1500), electricity (M3500) and phones (M2800) but due to the current budget, there is no money to cover such allowances.”
Ms Mokhoro also lamented that local court messengers are forced to use public transport to ferry suspects to the courts in the districts due to none availability of vehicles. She said that the messengers have to cough out the transport fares from their own pockets and then claim for reimbursement afterwards.
“Let us bear in mind that it is very risky for messengers to transport the accused on their own using public transport. When I noted the budget allocation for this year, I immediately told them to stop operations as there would not be any money to reimburse them after using their own money to perform government duties.”
For her part, Central Region Chief Magistrate, ‘Matankiso Nthunya, said that magistrates and local court presidents are forced to seek transport assistance from litigants, thus, compromising the integrity and independence of the courts.
“Basically, the courts cannot operate because there is no stationery and printing cartridges for the subordinate courts. Lawyers representing litigants now have to bring their own files and further photocopy filed papers outside the court premises or else we cannot help such an individual. As Ms Mokhoro has indicated, we cannot operate in the absence of subpoenas because each has to bear a specific serial number.
“In the past, each district used to have one vehicle and that would suffice. But now, court presidents are forced to seek transport assistance from litigants in cases where they have to go for inspections. That negatively affects the dignity of the courts and how do we expect the public to have trust in the judicial system should the judgement go in favour of the litigant who gave the court official a lift? No one will respect the court if it is not dignified.
“When we prepared the judicial budget, we were given a ceiling of M102 million but were allocated the M99 million. We have asked for an extra M14 million as an addendum budget but according to our sources, it seems the only amount which will be approved is the M7 million which is expected to buy judges (High Court) cars,” Ms Nthunya said.
Ms Nthunya repeated the magistrates’ demand for security. Last month this demand was shot down by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Mokhele Moletsane.
Mr Moletsane told the Lesotho Times that the magistrates’ demands for personal bodyguards were unreasonable as this “has never happened in any country”. Instead, he said the magistrate’s must be more mindful of their security and desist from visiting places which compromise their security.
“They (magistrates) raised the issue of their own security but you see the issue surrounding one magistrate’s security cannot be guaranteed by allocating a police officer to each and every magistrate. That cannot happen and it has never happened in any country.”
However, Ms Nthunya this week said they need security at work and at home.
“It was found to be ridiculous when we demanded security but the work we do is very risky. We also need secure homes because the poor salaries we earn force us to rent flats alongside the same people who appear before us in court. For instance, how are we expected to preside over our landlords or neighbours should they appear before us in court?
“In Mohale’s Hoek, the Ketane court was burned down twice and the Phamong’s local court president’s house was burned down and has been forced to seek refuge at a local police station.”
Mr Moletsane last month said that magistrates do not qualify for government houses and they should stop visiting dangerous places such as public bars and then demand security
“Security comes with responsibility; they should conduct themselves in a way that their security is not compromised. While magistrates should have their social lives, I am not expecting to see them all over the place in public bars and dangerous places.
“I have bodyguards as a minister but I cannot be seen going to dangerous places which would compromise my security. So, it is also an issue of responsibility because I do not remember country that allocates bodyguards for magistrates.
“Magistrates do not qualify for government houses, the law is only clear on the judges of the High Court that they should be allocated government houses because they hold statutory positions. Just like ministers, the law states that those holding statutory laws should be allocated houses and magistrates do not, they are on the civil servants level.
“However we negotiated the Ministry of Public Service to prioritise magistrates while allocating vacant government houses, especially for those who are renting flats for their own safety and ensure that they are not compromised. While this is a legitimate expectation, it should be understood that it is being done because of the sensitivity that comes with their job. It should also be understood that this process will not be an overnight one because we cannot evict people to make way for the magistrates,” Mr Moletsane said.