News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Saturday February 16th 2019

Ineffective maintenance courts undermine single mom’s rights

When the Maintenance Act was signed into law in 1998, enabling the establishment of dedicated maintenance courts, Koekie van Wyk sued for maintenance for her four-year-old son. Twelve years later, her son’s father is R19 000 in arrears on his R150 per month payment.He simply does not come to court on the appointed days and the investigating officer is struggling to locate him.

“It frustrates me as I hear of his partying with money that belongs to my son,” said van Wyk.

“It’s hard because every month I must struggle to ensure my son, who is now 16, is fed, clothed, got a roof over his head and pocket money.

“I’m tired of the system.”

However, there is some good news for van Wyk, and other struggling single mothers battling to proceed with their cases through the maintenance courts.

The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has recognised the weaknesses in the courts that leaves the guilty parties (predominantly men) benefiting from an inefficient and relatively toothless system and as a result plans to amend the Maintenance Act 99 of 1998.

The weaknesses in the legislation and its enforcement were highlighted in the South African Law Journal article Ten Year Anniversary of the Maintenance Act 99 of 1998 – A time to reflect on improvements, shortcomings and the way forward.

The article, written by Professor Madelene de Jong at the University of South Africa in 2009, pointed out problems with manpower, practices and procedures, training, infrastructure, attitudes and the dynamics between different courts.

Insufficient staffing appeared to be the biggest problem with regard to the recovery of maintenance payments and the enforcement of orders, with most courts still not having a legally qualified maintenance officer or investigator appointed.

Hence in these roles were being fulfilled by unqualified clerks, legal interns or public prosecutors, and relied on investigators from neighbouring districts, said the article.

Justice and Constitutional Development spokesperson Tlali Tlali said the department was considering bringing a number of amendments to the Act as the legislation needed to be more response to the people it served.

“Every effort will be made towards ensuring that the proposed amendments adequately respond to current issues on the ground and probably attend to those that may arise in the future.”

However Tlali said timeframes for the amendments could not be provided.

“A lot of work still lies ahead,” he said.

Lourens Ackermann, Pro Bono Coordinator at law firm Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs Inc said defaulters found in contempt of court were not faced with sufficient punitive measures.

“It needs to make an example of one and perhaps then they would take it more seriously as it’s just a big joke to them,” said Ackermann.

Ultimately it was the child’s quality of life at stake as those suing for maintenance were predominantly single mothers fighting for survival.

The Women’s Legal Centre in Cape Town welcomed the department’s plan to amend the Act but were concerned about the time it would take to introduce the amendments.

Attorney Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker said respondents abused the system, creating delays by changing attorneys before court dates or deliberately remaining unemployed.

Adding to the case backlogs and postponements was a shortage of investigators, said Fayker.

However, imprisoning those in contempt of court was not a solution as they needed to work to comply with the maintenance orders.

Charmaine Morris, paralegal advisor at the Saartjie Baartman Centre for women and children said respondents would ignore court orders and simply pay a fine when arrested, only to default again the following month.

But magistrates also needed to “pull up their socks” as they let cases drag on until women got so frustrated with the system they simply gave up.

Additionally, said Morris, women who were employed ended up losing a day’s pay every time they had to sit in court, only for the case to once again be postponed.

“It feels like they’re walking into a brick wall.” – Yugendree Naidoo, West Cape News

Tags: cape town, courts, maintenance act, maintenance payments, public prosecutors, single mothers

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Ineffective maintenance courts undermine single mom’s rights”

  1. Bruce says:

    as a 10 year ‘veteran’ ‘example’ of this abomination – the dept of justice is as much to blaim for the situation as anyone. the root of the problem lies in the fact that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the complainant and the prosecutor. the complainant wants money and the prosecutor wants a successfull prosecution. what the system needs to understand is that you can either get money out of the man or get vengeance – you can’t have both.

  2. Michelle says:

    I complelety agree with Bruce’s comments. Having appeared in court today and it being postponed to November I was very disheartened as he appeared with a lawyer and the prosecutor who is suppose to be my representative, just agreed to postpone again – thereby confirming the conflict of interest between me and the prosecutor. We can only hope that the law changes soon. Maybe if all woman get angry enough we can make a stand together …..

  3. Fax Guy says:

    Sad realities of living in South Africa.

    More often than not the kids get brought up by the grandparents, perpetuating further financial issues for the family dynamic later on.

    Stepping up to being a role model parent even if single is not an easy task. Then again what in life worth doing is easy.

    Great post thanks

  4. Caroline says:

    This Maintenance courts are still in a shambles and what is the government doing about it? They make laws but the Prosecutors and Magistrates don’t enforce them! What’s the point of laws if they are not enforced! Does anyone know who can help?? This problem will never end if women do not unite, take a stand & complain. If anyone knows who can be approached, I am happy to do it.

  5. J PADAYACHEE says:

    I changed courts in April 2011 and thought that will help, but not sure of the outcome as I awaiting cos the court Investigator is on leave. The court should therefore employ more efficient staff. When I go to the court there is only one investigator and maintainence officer.One of them is usually gone to another court. or one of them is on training. Both out on meeting. I am so tired of the run around. My parents are currently seeing to the financial needs of my kids, while my ex and his new wife have highly paid jobs and don’t contribute a cent to the order that is already in place by the court. I total disgusted by the SA court function.

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