Magistrates, Law Society “shocked” by JSC snub in judges’ recruitment

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Mohalenyane Phakela

MAGISTRATES and the Law Society of Lesotho have questioned the criteria used by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to shortlist six candidates from an initial 36 who had applied for the seven vacant High Court judges’ posts.

Law Society president, Tekane Maqakachane, this week told the Lesotho Times that they had sought audience with JSC chairperson and Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane over the issue. Advocate Maqakachane said they want clarity as to how the JSC arrived at the decision to shortlist the six candidates.

This after the JSC snubbed some top lawyers and all magistrates including the country’s three highly experienced Chief Magistrates ‘Matankiso Nthunya, ‘Makampong Mokgoro and Manyathela Kolobe from its shortlist announced over the weekend.

Ombudsman Tšeliso Mokoko, a former Defence and National Security principal secretary, was also overlooked along with Former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s daughter, ‘Mabatšoeneng Hlaele. Advocate Hlaele, the wife to ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) secretary general and former law minister, Lebohang Hlaele, is a seasoned lawyer and law lecturer at NUL.

They had all submitted their applications but the JSC only shortlisted Fumane Malebana Khabo, Moneuoa Kopo, Realeboha Mathaba, Makhele Julius Sekati, Kuena Mabotsoa Thabane and Mamotšelisi Khiba.

The names of the six are contained in circular by JSC secretary, ‘Mathato Sekoai, to the Attorney General, Rapelang Motsieloa; Law and Justice principal secretary, Lebeko Sello; the Dean of the law faculty at the National University of Lesotho (NUL); the president of the Law Society of Lesotho and all legal practitioners. The 22 July 2021 circular is also addressed to civil society groups and the public at large.

“On 15 February 2021, the Judicial Service Commission published an advertisement calling for nominations and applications to fill seven vacancies of puisine judges of the High Court,” Advocate Sekoai states in her circular.

“The closing date for the submission of applications and nominations was the 16th of March 2021 and the advert attracted a total of 36 candidates.

“At its 204th meeting held on 22 July 2021, the Commission considered the applications and nominations and came up with the six candidates who have met the shortlisting criteria published under the Judicial Service Commission Circular N0.1 of 2021 dated 31 March 2021. The six are Fumane Malebana Khabo, Moneuoa Kopo, Realeboha Mathaba, Makhele Julius Sekati, Kuena Mabotsoa Thabane and Mamotšelisi Khiba. The interviews for the candidates will be held on 16 August 2021,” Adv Sekoai states.

In a subsequent interview with the Sunday Express over the weekend, Adv Sekoai said “the number of those who will make it to the High Court bench will be determined by how many of the shortlisted six will pass the interview”.

Adv Mathaba is a former Acting Commissioner General of the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) while Mr Kopo worked as LRA Senior Manager: Internal Affairs.

Ms Khabo is Labour Court president while Mr Sekati works at the Law Office in the Ministry of Law and Justice. Ms Thabane is a former NUL law lecturer who is now in private practice. Ms Khiba, a former LRA board member, is now in private practice.

On the face of it, all six have basic credentials enabling them to meet the minimum requirements for appointment.

While all have the relevant law degree, only Ms Khabo appears to possess some form of experience in adjudicating cases in the courts as she is the Labour Court president.

The shortlisting of the six and the snubbing of seasoned magistrates has raised eyebrows among legal analysts, lawyers and magistrates themselves. (See analysis on Page 15).

The magistrates, through their association, Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE), argue that their members were overlooked despite boasting an average 15 years’ experience of adjudicating cases.

“We do not know what criteria was used to shortlist those six people,” JOALE president, Peete Molapo, said in an interview with the Lesotho Times this week.

“I doubt there was any criteria in the first place. In the beginning, the recruitment process was transparent as people were given the opportunity to apply. But we were shocked when it got to the shortlisting stage.

“The shortlist is highly questionable because none of the magistrates to have made it. There are so many who qualify with over 15 years of experience and they ought to have been given the opportunity to prove themselves in the final interviews. Even in terms of education, most magistrates have masters’ degrees.

“This is why we say the criteria has shocked us, if ever it all it was there,” Magistrate Molapo said.

On his part, Law Society president, Adv Maqakachane, said they had sought an audience with Justice Sakoane.

“As the Law Society, we had been made aware of the suspension of the recruitment process but a few days ago learned of the shortlisting of six candidates. This caused our members to have several questions regarding the shortlisting and we have asked for an urgent meeting with the chief justice.

“We have asked for this meeting to establish what transpired and that is all I can say for now,” Adv Maqakachane said.

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