- three judges retiring leaving just five to deal with huge backlog of cases
- funding woes persist
Mohalenyane Phakela / Nat Molomo
THE perennial shortage of judges to deal with a huge backlog of cases in the High Court is set to worsen amid revelations by Acting Chief Justice, ‘Maseforo Mahase, that three judges will be retiring “very soon”.
So dire is the situation that Justice Mahase this week told the Lesotho Times that the High Court was effectively operating with just five judges as she was no longer allocating cases to the three who are on the verge of retirement.
Ordinarily the High Court has 15 judges but two of these have been assigned to the court’s commercial division. Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara was suspended last year, Justice ‘Maseshophe Hlajoane passed on last month, three are only acting judges while another three are now retiring.
This effectively leaves just five judges to preside over a huge backlog of cases which some judicial sources have said is as high as 3000 cases.
The situation has also been compounded by an inadequate budget allocation which has been reduced to M10 million for the 2019/20 financial year, down from M26 million for the just-ended financial year.
The Lesotho Times recently established from sources that Justices Semapo Peete, Teboho Moiloa and Tšeliso Monaphathi will be retiring soon.
And although she did not mention names and when they are leaving, Justice Mahase this week told the Lesotho Times that three judges were on their way out and she had stopped allocating any cases to them. She said this left the High Court with just five judges to deal with all criminal, civil and constitutional cases.
“The High Court practically has five judges, minus the two (Justices Lebohang Molete and Lisebo Chaka-Makhooane) who are at the commercial court,” Justice Mahase said.
“We recently lost ‘M’e Hlajoane and three more judges are preparing for their exit and so I am no longer allocating them any new cases so that they do not depart without finalising the cases that are already before them.
“I have decided to write to the government to request funds to recruit more judges as the judiciary cannot function in this situation.
“This is a very serious crisis and to make matters worse, our budget keeps on being cut. For instance, we have this year been allocated only M50 000 to cover electricity, water and coal among other utility bills,” she added.
The shortage of judges as well as the underfunding of the judiciary have featured high on the list of complaints by Justice Mahase, Justice Majara and their predecessors.
In her remarks at the opening of the High Court on 1 February this year, Justice Mahase bemoaned the inadequate budget allocation, saying the entire justice system would suffer immeasurably if the problem was not addressed.
“The constant cutting of the judiciary’s budget goes against the widely-proved phenomenon that the value of money decreases over the years.
“We, in the judiciary, are in perpetual panic mode whenever the national budget speech and allocations are delivered in parliament. We are forever treated by successive governments as the proverbial whipping boys and poorest cousins of the three organs of state.”
Justice Mahase said the only time in recent years that the judiciary ever got an increased budget allocation was for the 2014/2015 financial year where they received M28.8 million, up from the M27 million of the previous financial year.
Since then everything had been on a downward spiral, with Justice Mahase saying the reduced allocation was “an unfortunate pernicious state of affairs (which) has to be arrested and remedied”.
“If the worrying scenario is allowed to persist, it is not us, the judiciary personnel, who will only suffer but this justice-starved and service-starved impoverished and demoralised nation. If you starve the judiciary of meaningful funding you will promote instability, erode public confidence in the rule of law, promotion of human rights and ultimately promote a nation of believers in the evil of self-help because the judiciary simply cannot discharge its constitutional mandate,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by the President of the Judicial Association of Lesotho (JOALE), Magistrate Peete Molapo, who told this publication that it would be “impossible for the judiciary to function with such a budget”.
“The budget allocated to the judiciary has to cover the salaries of all judicial employees after which it is then divided among the superior and lower courts to cover operating costs. Last year’s budget could not cover such operations and for the budget to be further trimmed is a disaster waiting to happen.
“The High Court takes the majority share of the budget while the Magistrates’ Courts’ share is divided among the 10 districts. These include the courts which are mostly located in the extremely cold areas which need expensive bought coal and gas supplies for them to operate effectively. On the other hand, the Court of Appeal sessions have never cost anything below M1 million as there are judges who are sourced from other countries and these judges have accommodation and vehicle costs that must be catered for.
“It will be impossible for the Magistrates’ Courts to operate under these budgetary constraints. For example, magistrates normally issue out subpoenas when cases are filed but we have been forced to make the applicants incur those costs as we do not even have printing cartridges,” Magistrate Molapo said.
He said he left a huge backlog of cases in Leribe where he previously worked before he was transferred to Maseru. He said that due to the underfunding of the judiciary, he could not go back to finalise those cases.
“It has been two years since I left Leribe where there are many cases which I had not finalised. The applicants have complained but I cannot go there because there is no money to cater for my transport and accommodation,” Magistrate Molapo said.