15 December 2012

Zimbabwe: Judiciary's New Approach Welcome


Recent reports that the courts have managed to reduce criminal cases backlog by 77 percent indicate a new approach by members of the judiciary. In the past, those arrested had to spend years in remand prison as their cases dragged on without a trial date being set.

There are a number of undesirable cases in which a judge or a magistrate ended up releasing a prisoner simply because they would have spent many years on remand. Imagine if you are accused of rape and you stay in remand prison for 10 years.

By the date you are tried, the judge or magistrate will find it difficult to sentence you to another 10 years if you are found guilty. That was the dilemma which faced the judiciary.

But in all the cases, it was the accused person who suffered most. The agony of staying in prison for so long, but eventually being found not guilty was unbearable. What made the situation worse was that there was no remedy for most of the accused after eventually being found not guilty.

Even in cases where the accused wanted to take action, most of them would not know channels to follow. They would be content that at least they were not found guilty and were out of prison.

But justice delayed is just as good as justice denied. The system in which those on remand were jostling to have their trial set down created opportunities for corruption.

Relatives of the accused were tempted to "talk directly" with the concerned magistrates. And this was causing confusion in the judiciary. A number of magistrates ended up before the courts accused of corruption and some were even convicted.

But the creation of the Judicial Service Commission in 2010 changed the approach. Now, there is tight monitoring of the operations of both the judges and magistrates.

We commend the JSC for ensuring that Zimbabweans at least get justice within a reasonable time. But more still remains to be done. The 77 percent reduction of the cases backlog might look satisfying to the bench, but the actual figures tell a different story. The cases were reduced from 45 000 to 10 000 as from September 2011 to date.

However, 10 000 people, most of them probably innocent, are still languishing in remand prison.

We believe that having 10 000 people on remand is still a high number. The office of the chief magistrate has a lot to do to tighten its performance measurement systems. This will ensure that the magistrates do not lax.

But using threats of arrest over corruption and failure to follow procedures alone is not the ultimate solution. There is need to offer incentives that are commensurate with the status of the magistrates.

Imagine a magistrate getting into a commuter omnibus and sitting next to a petty thief he/she is trying.

Of course, the thief will end up having no respect for the magistrate. One of the major aspects that must be tackled is offering the magistrates some incentives. The JSC must come up with measures that ensure the magistrates are not tempted into corruption. Although there is no justification for corruption, well looked after magistrates will tend to concentrate on their job more.

We are not asking for much from the magistrates.

Having access to Government low housing schemes, extending vehicle loans and increasing the salary a little can work to incentivise them.

The magistrates must still be commended for reducing the criminal cases backlog, even under a situation where they had to embark on strike recently to get a pay increase.

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