The child in this case claimed she had been raped by a relative of her father’s, starting from when she was nine years old. The case against the accused seemed strong, and the regional (senior) magistrate convicted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment. But when he appealed, the high court found the child had not been properly sworn in: his conviction was set aside, along with his life sentence, and the man walked free. This case, from the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, is replicated in many countries, every day, because legal technicalities related to fair trial are so often ignored. As SA observes Human Rights Day, 2019, here’s a plea: could the courts at least pledge to ensure they get the technicalities right? It would make a great impact of the human rights of every person brave enough to go through the trauma of reporting rape and giving evidence in a trial.
In the midst of bad stories about the quality of justice being experienced in Zimbabwe’s courts comes a high court judgment that sees the accused as an individual – and that sets aside his trial sentence in the lower court as a shocking expression of the magistrate’s whims about burglars at Christmas.
The judiciary in Zimbabwe is not enjoying a particularly good international reputation at the moment. News of bail applications routinely refused, of mass trials and sham prosecutions – all have raised questions about the quality of justice being dispensed in that country during the current crackdown on opposition activists.
In what two high court judges have described as misconduct “unprecedented in the annals of SA judicial history”, a magistrate has been found to have allowed an attorney to re-write his judgment before delivery. Even worse, the attorney concerned had appeared for one side in the case that led to the judgment. The magistrate, who has since died, initially wrote a judgment four pages in length, but after the attorney’s re-write this increased to 10 pages. The case involved a civil claim against the minister of police who, on hearing that the final judgment had been written by the attorney representing the opposing parties, asked for the judgment to be set aside by the high court. Reviewing the matter, the judges strongly criticized the magistrate and attorney involved and ordered that the case be heard again, from scratch, by someone from outside the district where the first trial was conducted. They also ordered that the legal practice council investigate the conduct of the attorney involved, and that the magistrate and attorney pay the legal costs of the review on a punitive scale.
When a number of court clerks obtained an order temporarily stopping the country’s Judicial Service Commission and the Chief Justice from recruiting and appointing a certain category of magistrate until their employment dispute was fully considered by the high court, the stage was set: some high court judge would have to consider whether Malawi’s top judge and judicial appointment authority were acting illegally. Judge Zione Ntaba drew the short straw. Faced with this difficult and sensitive question she said the JSC had to devise policy on crucial human resources issues, so that decisions on the appointments of magistrates should be clear, unambiguous and consistent.
A provincial magistrate has come under fire from two judges of the high court in Zimbabwe for “conducting himself as a loose cannon” and for not telling the truth to an accused about what the judges had ordered in their review of the original trial court sentence. The magistrate first imposed a hopelessly lenient sentence on a bus driver whose negligence directly caused the death of six people and then misrepresented to the accused the high court’s order on review. The judges said the magistrate’s behaviour was “mind boggling”, that he had been “untruthful”, had “taken leave of his senses” and “embarked on a frolic of his own”. They also ordered that their judgment be brought to the attention of the chief magistrate who was to ensure that the conduct of the magistrate concerned “is not repeated”.