MASERU — The wheels of justice in Lesotho nearly ground to a halt this week after lawyers started boycotting the courts in solidarity with magistrates whose strike entered the third week.
The boycott organised by the Law Society of Lesotho started on Tuesday and will end tomorrow.
Magistrates started their boycott three weeks ago to pressure the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to reverse its decision to appoint former High Court and Court of Appeal Registrar ’Mathato Sekoai as chief magistrate for the Southern Region.
Sekoai was demoted after a fall-out with High Court judges who accused her of corruption, incompetence, insubordination and arrogance.
Her demotion was a compromise the JSC had to make after the judges started boycotting courts, demanding that she be removed from the High Court.
The JSC’s decision however triggered howls of protest from magistrates who argued that Sekoai was not qualified to be a chief magistrate and that her position was never advertised.
They accused the JSC of overlooking some senior magistrates and appealed to the minister of justice to intervene.
The magistrates have since vowed to remain on strike until Sekoai’s appointment is reversed.
Since the strike started the magistrates have been dealing with remand cases only while hundreds of cases have been delayed and postponed.
This has already added to the huge backlog that the magistrates’ court have been battling to reduce over the past 10 years or so.
The three-day boycott by the lawyers will only exacerbate the problem.
The decision to boycott the courts was made at the law society’s heated special general meeting on Monday.
The meeting which had been called to discuss the state of affairs in the judiciary was however divided on how to respond to the magistrates’ strike.
Some members were calling for a boycott while others insisted they could not make such a decision because they did not have enough facts on the magistrates’ fight against Sekoai’s appointment.
Some suggested that instead of a boycott the law society should form a special committee to intervene in the dispute.
The committee, they suggested, would approach the magistrates, Sekoai, the JSC and Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla.
After the issue was put to vote through a secret ballot, 24 supported the boycott while 23 were against it.
Before the vote was cast attorney Qhalehang Letsika said as lawyers they did not have enough facts to make a decision.
He said although he acknowledged that there was a big problem in the magistrates’ court, he felt it could not be resolved through a boycott.
“Let’s establish a fact-finding committee whose terms of reference will be to find out what is happening around the issue of her (Sekoai’s) transfer, and then come to a compromise solution that could be adopted by the Law Society,” Letsika said.
But Attorney Molefi Ntlhoki disagreed, insisting that “we all know that judges wrote to the Chief Justice and despite that the Judicial Service Commission went ahead to appoint the registrar”.
“We have suffered with the judges and now it is magistrates. We act as if we don’t know. Let’s go with the boycott,” Ntlhoki said. He said the chief justice and attorney-general had gone against the rules of fair play when they appointed Sekoai.
Letsika argued that they had to engage Sekoai, the Chief Justice, and the magistrates to resolve the dispute.
Advocate Lepedi Molapo said there was need to engage magistrates working in Southern Region where Sekoai has been transferred.
Khosi Lesuthu, another lawyer, told the meeting that it was about time they took a stand as lawyers.
“We have clients to represent. I suggest we form a committee which will call the chief justice to understand the problem and find a solution,” he said.
But Ntlhoki was adamant that a boycott was the only way to pressure the JSC and the chief justice to resolve the issue.
“Let us be very serious about what is happening here. You can’t call the Chief Justice to this meeting, he has failed, the judges in this High Court came to the finding Sekoai was corrupt, incompetent and insubordinate.”
“I say let us go to boycott, let us paralyse the judiciary,” Ntlhoki said.
Law Society president Zwelakhe Mda said it was clear that the majority of members supported the boycott.
Advocate Tumisang Mosotho said the lawyers should not shy away from making bold decisions.
“We have the facts before us, and we are prolonging the crisis. We sometimes shy away from taking decisions,” Mosotho said.
Meanwhile the Lesotho Times understands that the Judicial Service Commission will meet today to look into the magistrates’ complaints.