Radebe to expand access to justice

IN a country where the majority still do not believe they can obtain justice through the courts, Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe has promised to reverse the situation.

He said his immediate task is to ensure that the judiciary enjoy the confidence of the people.

With just more than two months in office, he has also undertaken to dedicate the next five years to making sure the poor have better access to the courts and the justice system.

In an exclusive interview with Sowetan, Radebe bemoaned the absence of high courts in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, saying this compelled the poor to "travel hundreds of kilometres to Pretoria in order to access justice".

Radebe said: "Access to justice is still a challenge that we are facing, especially for the poor and vulnerable that live in rural areas. You also find that the majority of courts are in so-called previously white areas while in predominantly black areas, where the population is large, there are very few courts.

"This is an issue we should deal with as a matter of urgency. In the current financial year there's almost R500billion dedicated to court infrastructure."

While Radebe, who holds an LLM degree in International Law from Leipzig University in Poland, plans to restore the public's belief in the justice system, his first task as minister was to do damage control in a department that has been marred by controversy in the past two years.

Perhaps that was one of the reasons why Radebe was quick to recruit Tlali Tlali, the garrulous former national prosecuting authority spokesperson, as his mouthpiece.

We met at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, a day after the conclusion of the Judicial Conference of South Africa in Pretoria, where promises and assurances to address challenges facing the justice system - such as backlogs - were made by outgoing Chief Justice Pius Langa.

Radebe lives up to his reputation as an in-control minister. It is evident from his straight-to-the-point and immediate answers that Radebe is clued up about his job and how he plans to do it.

"The public should wait to hear the decision of the president," he said when asked about speculation about who will replace Langa.

Some of the biggest challenges facing the judiciary include the matter regarding Cape Judge President John Hlophe, the appointment of judges that Radebe has put on hold, and the transformation of the judiciary, which he seems to have put at the top of his priority list.

The first signs of a hands-on and no-nonsense approach became visible when he temporarily suspended the appointment of 12 judges last month, citing the need to transform the judiciary and to familiarise himself with its workings as his main reason.

"I cited transformation primarily because at that point I did not have adequate information on the issue. Secondly, we needed to be inducted to the workings of the JSC. I am now ready to deal with all issues relating to the administration of justice," he said.

Radebe admitted that the appointment of judges was a high priority as there was a shortage of these in the country.

He lamented the fact that years into our democracy we have only one African female senior counsel .

"I think it a shame that in our democratic dispensation we only have one senior African female counsel," Radebe said.

"We need to do more to give opportunities to black women both in the legal profession and on the bench.

"My feeling is that we do not have enough judges. Since I have been appointed minister I get letters from judge presidents throughout the country asking me to appoint acting judges.

"In the current financial year we have resources that have been set aside to appoint judges, magistrates and prosecutors."

Radebe said the battle between Judge Hlophe and the JSC was tarnishing the image of the judiciary.

"It will be in the best interest of all parties that this matter is concluded as soon as possible."

Radebe said when he leaves office he wants to be remembered for creating an enabling environment to have more black people in the legal profession, be they attorneys and advocates, or on the bench.