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
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.
CASES NOW DEALT WITH BY REGIONAL COURTS
- 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
- Credit Agreements of between R100 000 to
- Road Accident Fund Claims of between R100
000 to R300 000.
BENEFITS OF THE AMENDMENT
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.
- 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.