A COUNTRY-WIDE go-slow strike action by magistrates has brought the country's lower courts to a virtual standstill. Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mokhele Moletsane has urged the magistrates to halt their strike action and go back to work.
Several criminal cases could not proceed this week as the magistrates simply boycotted their benches. For instance, the alleged rape case of the former Minister of Law and Constitutional Affairs, Mootsi Lehata, failed to proceed as there were no magistrates in the courts after they began their go slow action on Monday.
A go slow is a form of strike action in which those behind it, in this case the magistrates, do report for work but refrain from executing their duties or simply perform their duties at a snail's pace. However, even though officials described the strike action as a "go-slow", it was to all intents and purposes a full blown strike by the magistrates.
The police, who arrested Mr Lehata last week on allegations that he raped a 17-year-old girl from Matsieng, drove the former Makhaleng legislator to the magistrates for his first court appearance on Monday.
Upon arrival in a packed court room, Mr Lehata was turned back because the magistrates had begun the industrial action to protest the government's failure to address their long-standing welfare grievances. These include concerns about poor salaries, which are said to be way below half of those paid to High Court judges, and lack of security from criminals whose cases would have been handled by the magistrates.
Mr Lehata was subsequently allowed to go home on the understanding that he would return to the magistrates' court yesterday (Wednesday). Again his case failed to proceed and had to be postponed to Tuesday as there was still no magistrate to preside over it confirming the action as a full strike.
The Lesotho Times has been at the Magistrates' Court in Maseru since Monday and established that court clerks had been repeatedly allocating new dates for cases that were supposed to be heard this week due to the lack of magistrates.
Information officer at the Magistrates' Court, 'Mampota Phakoe, confirmed the strike action but insisted on describing it as a go slow. She told the Lesotho Times that it was a result of long-term grievances of the magistrates which successive governments had failed to address.
"I had originally not been aware that there was a go-slow brewing but on Monday I noted an abnormality in the daily routines as several courts were empty when there were cases that were supposed to be heard," Ms Phakoe said.
"I heard that the magistrates were locked in several meetings but I later learnt that it was actually a go-slow which has been going on till today (Wednesday).
"What I know is that the magistrates have been complaining to the government for a very long time about low wages and poor working conditions which were never attended to even as different regimes came and go. However, the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) will soon release an official statement," she said, adding that the strike action was a country-wide affair.
The magistrates" grievances have been outlined by JOALE in numerous correspondence to successive governments from as far back as 2005.
However, the governments seem to have done little by way of concrete action to ensure the safety, independence and welfare of magistrates and support officers.
More recently JOALE secretary Masopha Kao wrote to Prime Thomas Thabane on 12 February 2018 to request a meeting over the magistrates' grievances. But the meeting has not materialised. JOALE president Molapo Peete said they had not received a response from the premier.
"I cannot pre-empt the next course of action but given that the Prime Minister has not responded, we will go back to our membership to give us direction," Peete said in an interview in May this year.
Part of JOALE letter states: "We, His Majesty's magistrates, would like to have a meeting with Your Excellency (Dr Thabane) as soon as practicably, reasonably and conveniently possible".
"The purpose of the meeting is to discuss magistrates' grievances with Your Excellency regarding our shocking poor salaries and benefits. These grievances have been tabled before various authorities for more than a decade but have still not been given the attention they deserve."
The magistrates say their low salaries and benefits are extremely depressing "and do not promote the commitment and urge to go the extra mile".
"Not only are the salaries and benefits completely not befitting of Judicial Officers, they are also an embarrassment to us.
"In terms of section 118(3) of the constitution... the executive is mandated to assist the courts to maintain their independence, dignity and effectiveness. However, there is very little support we get from government in this regard."
Mr Peete said they had even engaged Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara who had promised that "she would go to beg the cabinet as she had no power (to address their plight)".
He said they had not received any feedback from Justice Majara despite her promise to engage the government on their behalf last July.
Mr Peete said the majority of the magistrates were vulnerable due to their reliance on public transport.
He said the magistrates were forced to rely on taxis that were sometimes driven by the very people they had imprisoned at some point.
"Because of our meagre salaries most of us do not have our own vehicles and we are forced to rely on public transport. This could culminate in deadly consequences."
"Magistrates do more work than the High Court judges yet their salaries are much lower than those of their counterparts," said one magistrate who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity this week.
He added: "The magistrates have tabled their grievances to successive governments from as far back as 2005 and even with the current regime. But the grievances have not been addressed. We have opted for a go-slow action to compel the government to act".
On his part, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Mokhele Moletsane, said he was surprised to learn of the go-slow action as he had already met with the magistrates to learn of their grievances as part of efforts to come up with solutions.
"When I assumed office in February 2018, the magistrates in Maseru were among the first people I met and they tabled their grievances. Since the judiciary has different structures from the Court of Appeal down to the local courts, I asked them to give me time to travel throughout the country. This was so that I could learn of all the problems affecting the entire ministry to address them as a whole.
"I was therefore surprised to learn that they had started a go-slow and I met them again on Tuesday and asked them to go back to work as a go-slow would not make the government solve their problems in one day. It is wrong for them to believe that denying people justice will solve their grievances," said minister Moletsane.
"The government only allocates resources... . The person solely responsible for the judiciary's day-to-day issues is the Chief Justice (Nthomeng Majara) who I am meeting tomorrow (today) to discuss the issue," Mr Moletsane added.
He said he had asked for another meeting next week with the magistrates where he expected them to table proposals on how best to address their grievances.
He said the government was not ignoring the magistrates' concerns but did not have the funds to instantly address them.
"I have learnt that the issue of the security of magistrates stemmed from the inability of the government to accommodate them in state residences and sometimes this forces them to live as tenants of the same people they have to try in the courts.
"But the government houses are dilapidated and due to bankruptcy the government cannot fix that in a day. Even the Chief Justice has not leased a government house.
"We are not ignoring the magistrates' concerns but we cannot address them in isolation or in a day. I do not understand why they believe the go-slow will compel the government to act promptly. The best way is to sit down and find a common ground," Mr Moletsane said.
The strike action by the magistrates have further plunged the judiciary into turmoil especially as it comes in the wake of the war of attrition between the government and Chief Justice Majara over a spirited bid to oust her from office.
The Court of Appeal has not been sitting for a prolonged period after a failed bid by the government to appoint Justice Kananelo Mosito to head that apex court.
Analysts canvassed by the Lesotho Times last week said urgent concrete measures were now required to curb the paralysis in the judiciary, the essential cornerstone of any modern civilised democracy.