Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Enver Surty opened nine new courts at the Mitchell’s Plain Magistrates’ Court on March 30, in a move that residents hope will end their ongoing frustrations with the justice system in the Cape Town suburb.
Mitchell’s Plain has been hard hit by the abuse of tik and has the highest rate of drug crime in South Africa. SAPS statistics show that drug related crimes increased from 3,683 for the period April 2006 to March 2007 to 4,792 for April 2007 to March 2008 – a 23% rise.
But NGOs and community members have accused the court of serving up a “rich man’s justice system” that benefits drug and gang lords.
Their allegations centre around a ‘night court’, which began as a way of preventing arrested juveniles from being locked up with hardened criminals. The court is supposed to deal with trivial offences where the police and a prosecutor can decide on whether to release a suspect on bail without the presence of a magistrate.
But DA ward councilor Georgina Sass said drug and gang lords had been abusing the system by using the court to avoid having to spend the night in jail.
Sass said often children arrested for possession of drugs were denied night court and had to remain in the holding cells overnight before being released.
“I am aware of this because I often help desperate mothers or care givers to get their children night court since they are not familiar with the system,” she said.
Former Community Policing Forum chairperson AB Isaacs alleged the system was being abused because drug lords had the resources to contact lawyers and arrange for release through the system.
He alleged that those arrested during the day were fast-tracked through the system so they did not have to spend the night in a holding cell.
Only certain legal representatives were available for after-hours consultations and the drug lords were able to secure these services. A further concern was that because it took place after hours the public were not able to witness what was going on, he said.
The allegations have been ongoing since January, when a visit to Mitchell’s Plain by a number of parliamentary portfolio committees to get public input on the South African criminal justice system saw proceedings dominated by members of the community raising allegations about the night court from the floor.
Western Cape Director of Public Prosecutions communications manager Sandy Godlwana said her office was aware of the Mitchell’s Plain Magistrates’ Court holding night court. She said it was supposed to deal with less serious offences that would not require a magistrate to sit in, allowing the prosecutor to exercise his discretion in giving bail, said Godlwana.
Godlwana referred to the allegations as “serious” and suggested the public forward their complaints to the Western Cape Director of Public Prosecutions in writing.
The nine new courts, which cost in the region of R30 million, were officially opened by Surty on Monday.
The new court building, which adds to the eight existing courts, includes three regional courts, two criminal courts and one court each for sexual offences, domestic violence, divorce and maintenance.
Former Mitchell’s Plan chief magistrate Blackie Swart said the new courts were “desperately needed” to deal with drug related crime and domestic violence issues in the area.
Shahieda Abrahams, deputy director of Network Opposing Women Abuse said: “We are excited today because we actually have our own offices in the new building as the network has been assisting the courts and the public voluntarily in filing for protection orders, peace orders and warrants of arrests.”
She said the need for assistance had increased, with up to 43 people requiring assistance. — West Cape News