Small claims reforms spark debate

MASERU — The High Court is set to introduce a new small claims procedure in the Magistrate’s Court to speed up adjudication of commercial claims of lesser monetary value, the Lesotho Times heard this week.

The introduction of the procedure will be part of the reforms that are being proposed by the High Court to strengthen the civil legal system in Lesotho.

The new procedures were revealed at a one-day workshop held at Lehakoe Club on Tuesday.

The government says the small claims procedure within the magistrate courts will make the courts more accessible to claimants with limited resources.

The new small claims procedure will be refereed by magistrates.

The workshop also touched on other aspects such as the improvement of civil court operation and administration.

It also looked at the setting up of an independent Commercial Court.

The government says the project will strengthen the organisational structure and operational efficiency of the courts.

But the introduction of the small court procedures is likely to run into problems after senior government officials clashed over how it will be applied in practice.

The registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal, ‘Mathato Sekoai, told the workshop that decisions of the small claims will not be appealable or reviewable.

Sekoai said such decisions will not be appealed or reviewed because one would have gone through the small claims procedure voluntarily.

She said decisions by the small claims section would be final.

The chief magistrate for Maseru central, Molefi Makara, said however that such an approach would violate the people’s constitutional rights.

Makara said it would be unconstitutional to deny an aggrieved party the right to either appeal or apply for a review of decisions made by an adjudicator in proceedings of the small claims procedure.

“It would be bad procedure if it ignores the people’s constitutional rights,” Makara said.

He said although it would be a matter of choice for anyone to institute claims through the small claims procedure one’s constitutional rights must not be sacrificed.

Makara said guidelines to regulate the small claims procedure are now before Attorney General Tsokolo Makhethe for consideration.

Lawyers who spoke at the workshop also criticised the introduction of a roll-call system in the High Court.

It is a system where individual judges keep track of court cases under the individual docket system and allows judges to handle a case until it is finalised.

Advocate Tumisang Mosotho said the system had created confusion between lawyers and the magistrate courts as the High Court would set dates that often conflict with the ones set by magistrates in the lower court.

“Sometimes one finds that he has a case listed on the roll call in the High Court without any prior arrangements.

“This causes confusion because we seem to be frustrating proceedings in the magistrate’s courts because we ask for postponement only to attend the roll call.

“This roll call also seems to be undermining the procedure and some rules of the High Court.

“For instance an urgent matter loses its urgency because one has to wait for the roll call to set down the matter.

“Pre-trial conferences are no longer being held since this new system was implemented and yet the pre-trial conference should be held as stipulated in the rules,” Mosotho said.

Another concern was poor file-keeping in the High Court.

Some lawyers said some files go missing only for them to resurface at a later date.

Sekoai admitted there were problems in the High Court on the management of files.

“I want to believe that there are dirty games being played in this regard.

“It is true that some files go missing but when the time has lapsed, they resurface,” Sekoai said.

The civil legal reform project is a project financed by the Millennium Challenge Corporation to improve the civil legal system in Lesotho.

It is a five-year project which started in February this year.

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