Windhoek- Namibia Chief Justice Peter Shivute has expressed grave concern over the huge backlog of pending criminal and civil cases particularly at the magistrate’s courts, the coalface of the judiciary.
The Office of the Judiciary hosted a four-day Magistrate’s Forum for Legal Reform conference in Windhoek last week to discuss issues pertaining to the criminal justice reform task-force, criminal case backlogs, court performance as well as change and diversity management within the courts.
Addressing the gathering, Shivute said the delays in any system frustrate and erode public confidence in the judiciary system.
“The issue of delay in judicial proceedings such as the rather long delays between arrest, the appointment of legal aid counsel, first appearance at court and the ultimate finalisation of criminal cases is frustrating the public. I urge you to be attentive and alert to the emerging issues and to be more responsive to the needs of the community that after all we are there to serve,” Shivute said.
According to the statistics provided by the Office of the Judiciary 24,918 out of 44,857 cases were finalised by end of 2017 and that the backlog of criminal cases remains a huge challenge.
Shivute told the delegates that the courts, the Namibian Police Force, the Ministry of Justice and the Namibian Correctional Service, which collectively constitute the core of the criminal justice system, are under great and justifiable pressure from the public to take a very firm line with the perpetrators of crime.
“We all know there are delays in finalising cases but would not individually or as an institutional collective accept responsibility for it. Delay is usually someone else’s problem. For us in the judiciary, it is the police and the prosecution. For the prosecution, it is the courts and the police and it goes on and on. People from other countries and international institutions had to come under various mandates to tell us we have a problem. A problem we ourselves know exists,” he said.
He, therefore, urged the Criminal Justice Reform Task Team, which is to be proactive in addressing delays in the judicial proceedings.
The Criminal Justice Reform Task Team, spearheaded under the stewardship of the Deputy Chief Justice Petrus Damaseb, is a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral body established three years ago to diagnose the problems affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of Namibia’s criminal justice system and to recommend solutions to the identified problems.
According to Damaseb, among the Criminal Justice Reform Task Team success stories for the past three years is the introduction of reception courts, which are irresponsible for assessing the trial readiness of cases and to weed out related interlocutory issues and to get cases ready for trial as soon as possible.
The committee has also managed to implement the decision to have magistrates available on a 24-hour basis to issue protection orders in gender-based violence matters as well as the integration of a case management system to enable magistrates to be in control of the litigation of cases.
Through the task-force, the training of magistrates, prosecutors, lawyers and law enforcement agencies on issues such as bail, guilty pleas, plea bargaining, investigations and case management was also provided.
However, Damaseb said challenges such as the insufficient number of courtrooms, an unresponsive case management system and shortage of digital court recording equipment are the reasons behind the backlog of criminal cases in the lower courts. He added that inadequate police investigations and staff shortage, in terms of judicial officers, prosecutors and administrative support personnel, remain.
He, therefore, said there is a need to increase the number of magistrates at courts to reduce the backlog. He expressed optimism that increasing and enhancing physical access to court services will accelerate the disposal of cases due to reduced travelling and related logistics translating into more time dedicated to court sittings.