Magistrates suspend salaries lawsuit against govt

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Mohalenyane Phakela

MAGISTRATES have suspended their Constitutional Court application to force the government to award them salary increments and improve their working conditions to allow more time for negotiations.

They said the suspension will give Justice and Correctional Services Minister Semano Sekatle a chance to address their grievances.

In their stinging and unprecedented November 2019 Constitutional Court application, the restive magistrates accused the government of destroying their “morale, enthusiasm and passion” through its failure to adequately remunerate them and to allocate sufficient funding to enable them to discharge their duties.

The Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) filed the application on behalf of the magistrates. JOALE is an umbrella organisation representing judges, magistrates and other judicial officers. The government, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Minister of Public Service, Minister of Finance, Public Service Commission (PSC), Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and the Attorney General are the first to seventh respondents respectively.

But in a new turn of events this week, JOALE secretary, Masupha Kao, told the Lesotho Times that the magistrates had resolved to suspend the court application after Mr Sekatle indicated that he was willing to engage them over their grievances.

“Mr Sekatle has shown a keen interest to address our issues and we have resolved to hold the case to give him a chance to do his work as we believe moving the case would only mean we do not have faith in him,” Mr Kao told this publication.

“He (Mr Sekatle) had promised us to give us feedback by the end of January 2020 but he broke his leg and he had to be attended to in South Africa.

“Unlike the previous minister (Mokhele Moletsane) who kept postponing meetings when we asked for feedback, Mr Sekatle has reached out to us even after his injury. We cannot give specific timeframes as to when he (Mr Sekatle) will attend to our issues and give us feedback since he is still on sick leave. However, we will relaunch the case if we are not satisfied with the government response.”

The November 2019 lawsuit is the culmination of several years of the magistrates’ fruitless efforts to get the government to increase their salaries and benefits as well as recognise them as constitutionally distinct from civil servants. Before filing the unprecedented lawsuit, the magistrates took the equally unprecedented steps of staging strikes in July 2018 and April 2019 to protest what they said were “our shockingly poor salaries and benefits”.

In their court papers, the magistrates say they have “lost hope in the government ever resolving their five decades-old plights” and it is “more likely that another decade will go by without the government meaningfully addressing the grievances of the magistrates”.

The magistrates said their low salaries and benefits were “extremely depressing and do not promote the commitment and urge to go the extra mile”.

“Lesotho’s judiciary, particularly the magistracy, has been at the receiving end of the systemic general lack of funding by the government in terms of infrastructure, resources, salaries and remuneration. The magistracy operates around the country mostly in dilapidated buildings and squalid work conditions which can best be described as a scar to the human conscience.

“Many of the magistrates’ resort to loans and financing by financial institutions. While this may seem a temporary relief, the long-term ramifications are spiralling the magistrates into any abyss of never-ending debt, frustration and dejection. The best brains and talent migrate from the magistracy to join private practice or to the public service where upward mobility through the grades is in many cases a partisan reward,” JOALE president and Maseru resident magistrate, Peete Molapo, states in his supporting affidavit to the JOALE court application.

The magistrates contend that their classification as civil servants not only ensures that they are lowly paid but “creates the public perception that they are at the beck and call of the executive” thus violating the constitutionally enshrined principle of judicial independence.

The salary grades for civil servants range from Grade A for the lowest paid up to Grade M for the highest paid. The entry level for magistrates is at Grade F. At Grade K, a chief magistrate is the highest paid of the magistrates but his salary is only equivalent to that of a deputy principal secretary. He does not enjoy any benefits except for a mobile phone and airtime.

The government secretary, who is in Grade M, earns much more than a chief magistrate and is entitled to benefits which include a M500 000 interest free loan, a government vehicle, a mobile phone and airtime, a house and furniture.

In addition to his salary, a principal secretary, who is in Grade L, enjoys similar benefits to those of the government secretary.

This week, the magistrates said they would not have gone on strike if Mr Moletsane had not ignored their several requests for him to resolve their grievances while he was still the Justice Minister. Mr Moletsane was Justice Minister until he was replaced by Mr Sekatle in a cabinet reshuffle on 3 October 2019. Mr Moletsane is now Home Affairs minister.

“The problem we had with Mr Moletsane was that he would say he was addressing our issues but he never brought anything tangible to the table. We then engaged in strikes and even filed the court application upon realising he was not going to act but we have suspended the court action because we have confidence in Mr Sekatle. He (Mr Sekatle) was already engaging us when he was Public Service Minister,” said one magistrate who spoke on condition of anonymity this week.

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