BY HISHAAM MOHAMED
Historically in South Africa, many of the High Courts and Magistrates Courts were positioned far from the townships and rural communities. The Magistrate’s Courts could only deal with specific matters such as property-related disputes and credit agreements up to the value of R100 000.
All other matters such as adoptions, divorces, Road Accident Fund (RAF) claims and other disputes exceeding R100 000 were dealt with by the High Courts. This made it cumbersome for many people to enforce their rights as their costs incurred in travelling long distances to court and instructing legal representatives were often worth more than the claim itself.
The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, places a duty on the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (the Department) to ensure the accessibility and effectiveness to the courts through legislative and other measures.
In order to comply with its constitutional mandate, the Department has been introducing new initiatives to improve the accessibility of courts to the people.
Some of these initiatives include the introduction of new laws, the amendment of existing laws, new technological systems to improve court processes, among others.
One of the laws and initiatives which the Department introduced is the Jurisdiction of Regional Courts Amendment Act which was announced by President Jacob Zuma on Women’s Day last year and which came into effect on October 1 2010.
This new Act for the first time in South African history, allows certain civil matters to be heard by the Regional Courts which will go a long way in increasing the public’s access to justice.
Since 1953, the Regional Courts could only deal with criminal matters. For the first time in 58 years Regional Courts across South Africa now adjudicates over matters which fell previously under the domain of the High Courts and the three specialised Divorce Courts.
These matters include: divorce, adoption and custody; Road Accident Fund (RAF) claims between R100 000 and R300 000; Property related disputes between R100 000 and R300 000; and credit agreements between R100 000 and R300 000.
Thus far 62 of the country’s Regional Courts have been designated by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development to hear these matters.
Nine of these courts are situated in the Western Cape namely; Atlantis, Bellville, Cape Town, George, Mitchell’s Plain, Oudtshoorn, Somerset West, Worcester and Wynberg.
In the Western Cape, nine assistant registrars have been appointed to assist in these courts. A roster for when these courts are sitting is in place.
This new power that has been placed on the Regional Court means that litigation is now cheaper as the legal fees for bringing a matter to this court is less than that of the High Court.
Previously, a matter that was ‘trial ready’ (where all the court processes have been complied with and all documentation for each claim is on the court file) had to wait for up to two years before it could be heard by a Judge at the Western Cape High Court.
The new powers conferred upon the regional court reduce the waiting time for matters that fall within its control.
People do not have to travel from far all the way to Cape Town to have a divorce application finalised as it can now be dealt with at one of nine designated regional courts across the province.
A further benefit is that Legal Aid South Africa now provides free legal representation to certain qualifying litigants in civil disputes in these courts. Since the commencement of the Regional Civil Courts on 1October 2010, the courts have performed well in finalising divorce matters. The nine courts issued 19 557 divorce summonses and finalised 11 310 divorce cases. These statistics include defended and undefended divorce matters.
As with all new systems, there have been teething problems in the implementation of this new service. We are, however, convinced that by working hand in hand with the Judiciary; the legal profession and other stakeholders, no challenge is insurmountable. We are determined to make good on our Departments’ Constitutional mandate and strategic objectives of creating greater access to court services for our people.
Adv. Hishaam Mohamed is the Regional Head of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and also a Board Member.