Mohalenyane Phakela/Nat Molomo
ACTING Chief Justice 'Maseforo Mahase has allegedly ordered striking magistrates not to address the media regarding their grievances and their industrial action without her express approval.
The magistrates, whose go-slow strike action to press for higher salaries and better working conditions is in its third week, said Justice Mahase issued the instruction as they were about to address the media on Tuesday.
The magistrates fall under the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) whose secretary, Masupha Kao, said they were forced to cancel their scheduled Tuesday media briefing to avoid falling foul of Justice Mahase's 11th hour order. Mr Kao said they would consult Justice Mahase regarding the press conference and JOALE members' right to publicly air their concerns.
"As we were preparing to address the media a few minutes ago, we received a message from the Registrar of the High Court, Advocate Pontšo Phafoli, to the effect that the Acting Chief Justice (Mahase) had ordered that we should not continue with the press briefing," Mr Kao said on Tuesday.
"She (Justice Mahase) ordered that every magistrate who is asked anything by the media must first consult her and she will then give a go ahead or deny permission to respond (to the media's questions). We were told that the reason for her decision was that we have been addressing media on issues that she knew nothing about and therefore she found it hard to respond to questions from the government regarding what we would have said to the media.
"We are yet to meet with the Acting Chief Justice as our superior and inform her of what we planned to say at our press conference. We will further meet JOALE members to map the way forward.
"There are a lot of issues that we need to put out to the public regarding the abnormality prevailing at the magistrates' courts so we will inform you when the press briefing will be held or whether it would have been cancelled by the Acting Chief Justice."
Mr Kao wrote to Justice Mahase on 5 April 2019 seeking her intervention regarding the magistrates' longstanding grievances.
The magistrates, who are unhappy with the government's failure to address their long-standing demands for higher salaries and better working conditions, asked Justice Mahase to urgently convene a constitutional court sitting to adjudicate over what they say is "the unconstitutional scenario" in which they are treated as civil servants in violation of the separation of powers edict between the three arms of government; the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
They insist that their treatment as civil servants and dependence on the government for salaries and other benefits, albeit elusive ones, is unconstitutional in that it affects the independence of the judiciary.
This week, Mr Kao refused to entertain any questions regarding the magistrates" go-slow which he termed the "abnormality at the courts". He said he was gaged from speaking by Justice Mahase.
Last week he told the Lesotho Times that the said 'abnormality' would continue until their grievances were addressed.
He said JOALE met Justice Mahase who promised to meet the Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mokhele Moletsane on their behalf.
"We met with the Acting Chief Justice (Mahase) on 10 April who wanted to hear our side of the story and she promised to meet the Minister (of Justice) and get back to us. However, she (Justice Mahase) is a person of stature whom we cannot bother about feedback so we will wait for her response.
"We further met the Law Society on 16 April and they also promised to meet the Minister of Justice and thereafter give us feedback," Mr Kao said.
He said the go-slow would continue until their demands are met saying they "will continue to work with abnormality until we get answers we need".
The Lesotho Times has observed the 'abnormality' which began this month on 2 April where court sessions have not been held as expected at the Maseru and other magistrates' court around the country.
Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS) trucks, which usually transport suspects to the courts for remand hearings have not been coming since the go-slow started. Those who are out on bail and attending remand sessions from home have also not had much joy as they have been coming to merely sit at the court premises without anyone explaining to them what was happening. The few cases that have been attended to have been heard in chambers and not in the open courts as in normal situations.
This is the second time in less than a year that the magistrates have resorted to industrial action to force the government to act on their demands. Last July, a similar country-wide go-slow strike action by the magistrates paralysed the operations of the lower courts.
At the time the magistrates complained about what they said were "our shocking poor salaries and benefits".
The magistrates further said their low salaries and benefits were "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. 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 (because some criminals who appear before the magistrates use the same public transport).
"Magistrates do more work than the High Court judges yet their salaries are much lower than those of their counterparts. These grievances have been tabled before various authorities including the current administration for more than a decade but have still not been given the attention they deserve.
"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," the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) stated in its letter to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
This time, the magistrates are angry with Justice and Correctional Services Minister Mokhele Moletsane who they say has "deserted" them despite promising to address their grievances.
They accuse the minister of not giving them the feedback from cabinet by the promised date of 28 January 2019 over their request to be each paid a M3000 responsibility allowance. The chief justice is currently paid a M5000 responsibility allowance while all the other judges get M4000. The magistrates are paid nothing but it is understood that the Public Service Commission and the Remuneration and Benefits Board had recommended that they all be paid a flat M3000 each in responsibility allowances, regardless of class. The magistrates interviewed this week, on condition of anonymity, say Public Service Minister Joang Molapo and Mr Moletsane had promised to table this request to cabinet and report back to them by 28 January 2019 but this had not happened, prompting them to opt for strike action.
"We are fed up. I am personally fed up. This government does not take us seriously... We have no option but to strike back," said one magistrate who spoke to the Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity.
In response, Mr Moletsane recently told the Lesotho Times that magistrates were civil servants and should not expect to be accorded the same treatment as judges and others who hold statutory positions. Mr Moletsane also said it was incumbent upon the magistrates to ensure their security and avoid being "all over the place in public bars and other dangerous places".
Contacted for comment, Adv Phafoli said that magistrates could not address media without the knowledge of Justice Mahase yet she is busy solving their issues. She said they needed to first consult her (Justice Mahase) about issues they want to publicise since they are working as a team.
"Justice Mahase has promised to deal with magistrates' issues and has already met with the minister (Mr Moletsane) about their issues. She has already got feedback and what is left is how they move forward on the implementation.
"They (magistrates) are not working in good faith with Justice Mahase if they can go on and hold a press conference without her knowledge. They need to work as a team and keep her in the loop about things they need to talk about to the media so that she may not be in for surprises while negotiating on their behalf," Adv Phafoli said.