THE Ministry of Justice and Correctional Affairs has engaged the Ministry of Public Service to prioritise magistrates in allocating vacant government houses in Maseru to ensure their security.
This was said by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Affairs, Mokhele Moletsane in a recent interview with the Lesotho Times.
He said priority will be given to magistrates who are renting in flats to ensure that their security is not compromised.
This comes after magistrates complained that they sometimes deliver unpopular judgements which do not sit well with some people hence their security would be at risk.
The calls for government housing were made during the long-drawn negotiations between the ministry and the Judicial Association of Lesotho (JOALE). Apart from government housing, the magistrates are also said to have demanded bodyguards.
"They were complaining that they deliver judgements that might not sit well with some people and the absence of secure accommodation compromised their safety," Mr Moletsane said.
"Those who complained the most were the Maseru magistrates. This is because in the districts, government housing priority is given to the District Administrators (DAs) and resident magistrates. However, there are many magistrates in Maseru who do not reside in government houses which are allocated to civil servants.
"Magistrates do not qualify for government houses. The law is only clear that judges of the High Court should be allocated government houses because they hold statutory positions. Just like ministers, the law states that those holding statutory offices should be allocated houses but magistrates are on the civil servants' level so they do not qualify."
The minister however, said while the magistrates have a legitimate expectation that their housing issues would be resolved early, they should also understand that it cannot be done overnight.
"While this is a legitimate expectation, it should be understood that it is being done because of the sensitivity that comes with their job even though they are not in statutory positions. It should also be understood that this will not be an overnight process because we cannot evict people to make way for the magistrates."
Mr Moletsane also said the magistrates' demands for personal bodyguards were unfounded as it "has never happened in any country". Instead, he said the magistrate's must be more mindful of their security and desist from visiting places which compromise their security.
"They raised the issue of their own security but you see the issue surrounding one magistrate's security cannot be guaranteed by allocating a police officer to each and every magistrate. That cannot happen and it has never happened in any country.
"Security comes with responsibility; they should conduct themselves in a way that their security is not compromised. While magistrates should have their social lives, I am not expecting to see them all over the place in public bars and dangerous places.
"I have bodyguards as a minister but I cannot be seen going to dangerous places which would compromise my security. So, it is also an issue of responsibility because I do not remember country that allocates bodyguards for magistrates," he said.
The country's judiciary has been facing several challenges whose climax was signified by the raging conflict between Prime Minister Thomas Thabane's administration and the suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng.
Justice Majara's suspension last September was meant to pave way for a three-member tribunal to try her over a litany of misconduct charges including her alleged failure to ensure the timeous delivery of justice. She however, immediately filed a High Court application seeking the nullification of her suspension and the nullification of the subsequent appointment of Justice 'Maseforo Mahase as the Acting Chief Justice.
In February this year, the Government Secretary (GS), Moahloli Mphaka, confirmed that the government and Justice Majara have agreed on a M9 million exit package which will see her leave office without undergoing a potentially damaging impeachment process.
In an unprecedented move, magistrates embarked onto a go-slow last July to force the government into awarding them salary increases. The government eventually engaged them for negotiations and they returned to work but just last week, they embarked onto another go-slow.
The magistrates, who are unhappy with the government's failure to address their long-standing demands for higher salaries and better working conditions, have now also written to the Acting Chief Justice Maseforo Mahase to urgently convene a constitutional court sitting to adjudicate on what they say is an unconstitutional scenario where they are considered to be and treated as civil servants.
The magistrates are also livid with Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mokhele Moletsane who they accuse of reneging on commitments to address their grievances.
Mr Moletsane however, said there are issues that can be dealt with and implemented whereas there are some that "can never happen".
"But we are now looking at the issue which I regard as a legitimate one. When we interrogated the new judicial structure, we established that presidents of the local courts did not hold Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degrees but there is a change now.
"The presidents wanted to be automatically promoted to those positions after the structure had been approved and implemented. This is despite the fact that they did not hold the LLB qualification. The new structure placed both the local courts presidents and third magistrates on the same qualification and grades.
"However, the magistrates argued that they cannot be on the same grade and qualification with the local court presidents when the presidents' judgements are appealed at the third magistrates' courts. So, these issues must be explicitly explained in that structure and state what they mean to the administration of justice."
The minister also said it was misguided that staff in the judiciary wants to be treated differently from the rest of the civil service in terms of grading so much that even their cleaners and clerks thought they could be promoted automatically.
He said the magistrates also wanted to be graded differently and if effected, they would earn more than judges.
"You will be surprised that even the cleaners and clerks wanted to be included in the new judicial structure and thought they would be promoted automatically. There is a misguided understanding that just because it is the judiciary, it is independent from the rest of the civil servants in terms of grading; for example, cleaners wanted to be on a different grading from the rest of the cleaners in the ministry of justice or the government as a whole.
"They (magistrates) wanted to be regraded, moving from grade G or H to I and that would have disturbed the whole grading system to an extent that the magistrate was going to earn higher than a judge. We could not have that on our table because that would mean even re-grading the High Court and Court of Appeal registrars as the administrative chief accounting officers. It also meant that judges' salaries would also be increased. When that happens, ministers, deputy prime minister and the Prime Minister's salaries will be increased.
"But we agree on the risk and responsibility of magistrates. Their work makes them different from other civil servants. They attract a different kind of attention and that need to be compensated. When they stood their ground on the issue of regrading, the government argued that these were not legitimate demands because it was disturbing the whole government system by attracting a M15 million increase on their wage bill per annum.
"On the issue that this structure is wrong, they have failed to convince us and the Ministry of Public Service does not agree with them. Despite all this, we proposed to the cabinet to look into. High Court judges get a M4000 responsibility allowance; we are proposing that the magistrates receive a responsibility allowance as well. We have since submitted this proposal and that of regrading to the cabinet," Mr Moletsane said.
He said they handed in a proposal to the cabinet two weeks ago which will be discussed in the next meeting.
"There were three proposals - the regrading that would cost the government M15 million on top of their current salaries; responsibility allowance and retention allowance.
"This is a proposal before the cabinet and we discussed this issue a fortnight ago, it is going to be discussed in the next informal meeting and I have been telling the magistrates that the cabinet operates in a certain way. After submitting a proposal there are several processes that include directing ministers of finance, public service and justice to deal with the matter.
"The cabinet because it cannot always approve increments each time there is someone complaining. We need to assess each situation individually and convince the whole cabinet that there is a need to act," the minister said.
He added that the government has engaged a consultant who is interrogating the structure of the entire civil service including the teachers and the LCS.
"In the same vein, the judicial structure will be subjected to the same processes," Mr Moletsane said.