Maseru court grinds to a standstill

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Mohalenyane Phakela

OPERATIONS at the Maseru Magistrates Court have ground to a virtual standstill due to a power cut by the Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC).

So serious is the crisis that, according to Chief Magistrate ‘Matankiso Nthunya, magistrates are unable to deliver judgements, hear or even enrol new cases whose proceedings have to be electronically recorded.

The LEC abruptly cut power supplies to the Maseru Magistrates Court on 23 February 2021 over its failure to pay a M1, 3 million power bill which had accumulated over the past five years.

Chief Magistrate Nthunya this week said they had scrambled to raise M200 000. However, this is still grossly inadequate as the LEC is holding out for at least half of the M1, 3 million debt. This means that the judiciary will have to fork out at least M650 000 before the Maseru court is

reconnected.

“We tried to secure funds to pay up and we even diverted our fuel funds which added up to M200 000 in a bid to settle the debt,” Magistrate Nthunya said.

“However, this was not enough. We cannot solve this issue anytime soon. I don’t think the funds we will be allocated for the next quarter will be enough to pay the debt. That is our current situation and we remain clueless as to how we will address it.”

Magistrate Nthunya also issued a statement listing the services that had been affected by the power cut.

“All pending judgements will not be delivered; copies of judgements will not be given and copies of records for transmission to the High Court for review or appeal will not be offered.

“All part-heard cases that have been recorded electronically or those that need electronic recording will not proceed.

“The civil registry will not provide civil records upon demand. The accounts section will not accept any payments. No payments and other claims for reimbursement shall be processed,” Magistrate Nthunya said in the statement this week.

She however, said other services which did not require power supplies would be offered as usual.

These include the issuance of remands which can be hand-written.

Last week, Magistrate Nthunya told the Lesotho Times that the electricity debt had accumulated over the past five years as they could not pay up due to the meagre funds they have been receiving every financial year from the government.

“The money allocated to us each year is not enough to allow us to pay for electricity. For instance, for the year 2019/2020, we were allocated M430 000 while our power bill was already sitting at around M800 000,” Magistrate Nthunya said.

She said the paltry M430 000 was the annual budget for the entire Maseru district which was shared among two magistrates’ courts, a central court and fourteen local courts. The money is expected to cover operational expenditure for all the 17 courts over a period of twelve months.

She said their allocation kept decreasing each year and the government did not allocate more funds even after they attached an invoice of the electricity bill.

The situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon if the budget estimates presented a fortnight ago by Finance Minister Thabo Sophonea are approved by parliament.

Mr Sophonea proposed a budget of M113, 3 million for the judiciary for the upcoming 2021/22 financial year. This is M22, 7 million less than the M136 million the judiciary received for the 2020/21 financial year.

The specific budget for the Maseru Magistrates Court was not announced in the budget as sectoral allocations of the various judiciary bodies will be determined later.

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