The Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs, with support from Denmark, is working towards ensuring that the poor, underprivileged and often disadvantaged people have access to justice.
According to Walter Chikwanha, the provincial magistrate in the chief magistrates’ office in Murehwa, magistrates courts are supposed to be accessible to the indigenous people of Zimbabwe, the majority of whom live in the rural areas.
“We’re planning to visit different areas to hold courts so that we can save litigants the expenses of travel (to attend centralised courts),” he said during a tour of the new regional court complex in Murehwa.
He said because of “the nature of the litigants” most of the services they provide will be offered free of charge.
“Most of them are rural folk who’re surviving on farming and cannot afford lawyers,” he said.
“Since most of them don’t have lawyers, it is important for magistrates to lean over backwards and consider them.”
He adds that such issues were not taught in law school, especially how to assist a witness who had never set foot in court, so there was need to continuously train magistrates on how to deal with such issues.
“I would like to urge our co-operating partners to look into ways of assisting through continuous training of staff at courts,” he said.
Among the issues to be handled at the new complex housing the Magistrates’ Courts will be sexual abuse which, according to Chikwanha, is normally perpetrated against women and girls.
“These (women and girls) are vulnerable victims in our judiciary system,” he said.
He adds that in several instances, perpetrators of rape have been let off the hook because their victims are not able to properly furnish the courts with evidence.
This is what has led to the establishment of the victim-friendly courts (VFC)s. Chikwanha says the VFC system has proved to be a success in the areas where it has been introduced.
Inadequate resources have also hindered the process of justice as the courts are obliged to give certain documents to litigants, like those applying for maintenance, for free or at a minimal cost.
“We don’t charge any fee, or it’s very minimal. There is need for paperwork in processing applications. If we make them (poor litigants) pay, it defeats the reason for having the Maintenance Act because we are asking the woman who can’t look after herself or her baby to pay money,” he said.
Denmark’s Under-Secretary for Africa Susan Ulbaek says there is need to look into all those issues “in a broad sense”, adding that she is impressed by the scope of the cases that the new Magistrates’ Court will be handling, armed robberies, sexual assault and corruption.
She says her country, which closed its foreign mission in Harare in 2002 over sharp political differences, is planning to set up offices in Zimbabwe to facilitate co-operation with locals.
“It’s important to ensure that ordinary people have access to justice and that they feel secure,” she says. “This is why we decided to engage in this sector.”
According to Chief Superintendent Simon Matsikesimbe the police have set up victim-friendly units at every police station and also conduct awareness campaigns in school to conscientise mainly young girls about the potential dangers of sexual abuse.
“We want them to know how perpetrators lure them into situations where they end up being abused,” he says. “We also talk to them about what they are supposed to do if they are abused.”
He says many times young victims do not report rape and it would only come out after the child has been taken to hospital.
“We also talk to parents and guardians as most cases of rape that we deal with are perpetrated by people who are related to the victims and in some instance, custodians take advantage of the children and rape them,” he says.
He adds that just before the official opening of the regional court in Mrewa, the police will embark on a massive awareness campaign on child sexual abuse.
Ulbaek says the Danish are likely to be here for a long time, during which they would continue to support efforts to improve Zimbabweans’ livelihoods. Through Danida, Denmark is the fourth largest bilateral donor in Zimbabwe this year.
The country, which closed its embassy in Zimbabwe in June 2002 over sharp political differences with Harare, has provided development assistance amounting to $60 million between 2010 and 2012 with a bias towards private sector development in agriculture, infrastructure and good governance, human rights and free and fair elections.
The European country is also actively assisting the transition process and implementation of the GPA through support to Jomic and the constitution-making process.