The Johannesburg High Court administration embarrassment

I just returned from yet another trip to the High Court to follow up on a few default judgment requests which I filed in April and June 2010. I thought I would share my experiences and try give people not involved in court processes an idea what is or isn’t going on behind the scenes at court. Its nothing short of frustrating and an embarrassment.

For the most part administration at the Johannesburg High Court, probably the busiest in South Africa, is paper based. The files are all paper based and are moved from room to room as a case moves through the various processes that make up court proceedings. The common default judgment application process was intended to be an expedited process where litigants could “request” default judgment on certain matters by submitting a request to the default judgments registrar. The registrar could then grant judgments on paper without the need to bring a formal application to court. That, at least, is the idea. In practice this aspect of court administration has just become arduous, frustrating and anything but efficient.

Below is a memo from the Chief Registrar regarding the procedures for default judgment requests and follow-ups.

The initial process focuses on a register book with handwritten entries on each line with a reference number the case number and an indication of when the request was actioned and what the action was (granted, queried and so on). If you didn’t keep a record of the reference number when you first became aware of it, you have to page through the book to find it each time. There also seems to be one book and I would hate to think what happens if that book disappears. This process could easily be computerized with a fairly simple database application. Instead, it is manual and the computer on this registrar’s desk serves as an impromptu shelf.

Querying the status of a default judgment request is frustrating to say the least. I went to court last week Wednesday and all I could find was a pile of files on a table. Some court official mentioned in passing that they were a collection of files in respect of which default judgments had been requested. They weren’t in any particular order and there was no indication why these ones had been singled out.

Default judgments administration-6

The default judgment registrar’s office (the place you would expect to find some clarity about default judgments) was closed on the day and a typist next door told me he would be in his office on Mondays.

I returned to court this morning in the hope I could speak to this registrar about my files when I walked into his office I didn’t find him. I did find this mess (one of the images in this slideshow is the photo of the table above – the table was just outside his office):

The process, once you arrive in this office, is to search through the loosely organized files and the “mixed” files in the hope that you find your file. I searched through about half a dozen piles of files and didn’t find a single one of my files. One messenger who walked in found a file which contained a default judgment request from September 2009. The registrar never arrived and the typist from two offices away mentioned that he had been reassigned to “Finance” and she didn’t know who would replace him. For now it fell to her to try keep an eye on the office and still do her work.

I asked her if anything was computerized and she said that the only time file information enters what passes for the court’s computer network is when a judgment is typed. A lot happens before that occurs and if the rest of a court’s administration is anything like default judgments (and I believe it is just as bad), the system is barely functioning.

To make matters worse, I have read that a degree of corruption has set in too. A Sandton attorney wrote to the attorneys’ magazine, De Rebus, about this issue. It appeared in the current issue on page 9. In his letter the attorney said the following:

… Not only has the physical structure been deteriorating over the years (though something is being done about this at present), but the whole administrative system seems to falling into disrepair. If there is still a filing system, it is in a state of chaos. Corruption is apparently rife. I understand that the Registrar’s staff regularly ask for, and expect, some form of reward for doing their job, whether it be in the form of a soft drink, ‘Nandos‘, or even cash.

I understand that it is currently taking eight weeks for court orders to be typed. On a million rand judgment, at 15,5% interest, the interest that accrues simply because of a delay in typing of a judgment is over R25 000.

The letter goes on and is worth reading in its entirety. The result is an administrative process which is hampering what is an already expensive and time consuming litigation process. Fortunately I don’t handle a lot of litigation anymore and I am seriously thinking about recommending more expensive, although usually more efficient, arbitration procedures for disputes than court proceedings.

In the meantime I have clients who need to take further steps and I left the court empty handed, again.

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