Big changes for Magistrates Courts in South Africa

Magistrates Court, King Williams Town

South Africa’s Magistrates Courts are about to undergo a substantial change, reportedly from tomorrow, 15 October 2010. The first big change is that the rules that govern much of how these courts operate are about to change and the changes are fairly substantial. Some of the changes include making provision for service of court papers by email and fax as well as increasing the distance attorneys may be from the court for the purposes of court process delivery before needing to appoint a local correspondent attorney. There are also fairly significant changes being made to court procedure generally which bring the Magistrates Court rules more into line with the High Court rules. It isn’t clear what happens to existing proceedings and whether the old rules will apply to those proceedings.

One of the biggest changes is the introduction of a civil Regional Court with expanded jurisdiction to hear not only higher value cases (the ordinary or district Magistrates Courts have an upper jurisdictional limit of R100 000) but also to hear family law matters. The Divorce Courts established a few years ago will be subsumed into this new Regional Court structure. The Department of Justice published some information about these courts on its website:

The Department of Justice and Constitutional
Development has amended the Magistrate’s
Courts Act of 1944 giving powers to Regional
Courts to deal with civil cases.
President Jacob Zuma announced the
commencement of the Jurisdiction of Regional
Courts Amendment Act which came into effect on
9th August 2010, the National Woman’s Day.

The Regional Courts were established in 1952 to
deal with serious criminal offences and mete out
harsher penalties.
The amendments increase access to justice to
members of the public, in particular, women and
children who go to courts daily for the resolution
of family related disputes relating to divorce;
maintenance; adoption; and matters relating to
custody of minor children.


  • Family disputes including: divorce;
    maintenance; adoption; and matters relating
    to custody of minor children.
  • Disputes over movable and immovable
    property of between R100 000 to R300 000
    which were dealt with by the High Court before
    the amendment.
  • Credit Agreements of between R100 000 to
    R300 000.
  • Road Accident Fund Claims of between R100
    000 to R300 000.

Reduced time of finalisation of cases:

  • There are now 62 more Regional courts to deal
    with same workload that the 3 former divorce
  • This will assist in reducing case backlogs both
    at the High Courts and Magistrates Courts.

Reduced Costs:

  • Proceedings in the High Courts are complex
    to the extent that attorneys and advocates are
    usually instructed resulting in high litigation
  • Regional courts have a reduced scale of costs in relation to the High Court, and simplified proceedings which includes the use of
    mediation in resolving civil disputes.
  • Registrars and assistant registrars appointed
    at each regional court to provide assistance to
    member of the public.

Of course it is all well and good to introduce these new rules and this court structure but the courts’ administration needs to function properly. I have a few cases pending in the Johannesburg Magistrates Court where we are unable to take the matters further because files can’t be found. What we sorely need is a digital court filing and administration system and there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful effort to achieve this by the Department of Justice. Manual court administration is failing and simply can’t support courts’ current caseloads effectively.

That said, these changes are encouraging. I just hope we see more systemic changes soon.

Image credit: Magistrates Court, King Williams Town by Kleinz1, licensed CC BY NC ND 2.0

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

2 thoughts on “Big changes for Magistrates Courts in South Africa

  1. I believe there are new developments with regard to helping people who wants to get divorced to get to agreements. I heard there will be a body consisting of people who have experience in pastoral and psychological fields to assist people with disputes to get to an agreement. Can you tell me more about this.
    Thank you.


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