Magistrates — between rock and hard place

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Zimbabweans have always complained of allegations of corruption by judicial officers and courts have also dealt with a plethora of cases of gross abuse of duty by public officers on so many occasions.

Recently, magistrates countrywide embarked on a nationwide strike to force their employer, the Judiciary Service Commission (JSC), to increase their salaries to at least a respectable figure.

The week-long strike failed to yield meaningful results and the magistrates were urged to return to work even though nothing was put on the table.

It goes without saying that the current salary (between $250 and $300) which the judicial officers are earning is nothing but a mockery to their learned profession.

How then does one expect a judicial officer to shun corruption if he/she is subjected to such harsh working conditions that are akin to community service?

A Harare lawyer, Vasco Shamu, said: “It becomes a very difficult situation if a magistrate operates under such conditions. The environment becomes shaky.

“The government has to diversify the funds to meet the immediate call that has arisen. It has to weigh the needs of each ministry and channel resources to critical areas.”

More often than not, magistrates are on record for making a common phrase such as “you committed the offence out of greed and not out of need”.

If judicial officers earn a monthly salary of about $250, then it is not correct to say that those previously charged with gross abuse of duty as public officers did so out of greed, but it was out of need.

Another Harare lawyer, Martin Chasakara, said the culture of not remunerating judicial officers properly creates a situation where they are tempted to act in an untoward manner.

“Out of frustration, the judicial officers end up failing to discharge their duties properly and effectively. They may not be corrupt as such, but may simply fail to deliver justice,” Chasakara said.

Of course the government may say the funds in its coffers do not permit any meaningful salary increments, but it is not only the monetary issue that may address the problem.

Constructing houses or flats for the judicial officers would ease their plight as they have to contend with high rentals and at the same time stay under the same roof with criminals they are supposed to prosecute.

The number of judicial officers countrywide is so small that the government cannot say it does not have the capacity to accommodate them all.

At the moment, the government provides transport to its workers which is commendable, but not all are benefiting considering how far apart the judicial officers stay.

City Council authorities can be approached to provide a piece of land where judicial officers could build houses and have transport provided to pick them to and from work.

The current situation where the judicial officers mingle with criminals and litigants exposes the officers to temptations of accepting bribes.

Not because the officers would want to eke a living out of it but in a bid to protect their interest against landlords and transporters.

Magistrates embarked on a nationwide strike this month to induce Finance minister, Tendai Biti to release funds to the JSC for improvement of their salaries.

But, a joint meeting by the JSC, Chief Magistrates’ Office and the Magistrate Association of Zimbabwe failed to yield meaningful results and magistrates were urged to return to work while negotiations continued.

It remains to be seen how the government will eventually address the situation since the judicial officers are yet to be advised of what they are likely to earn after the protracted negotiations.

The Magistrates’ Courts, according to Walter Chikwanha, the provincial magistrate in the chief magistrate’s office at Murehwa magistrates’ court, were responsible for the bulk litigation in the country.

“We do almost 90% of litigation in Zimbabwe, while the other 10% is divided between the High Court and the Supreme Court,” he said, addressing a Danish delegation touring the new court in Murehwa last month.

He said they had been a high turnover of magistrates due to a variety of factors and courts were currently operating with about 250 magistrates, a number that he said was not ideal.

“Magistrates often discover that the grass is not greener in the civil service, so they often leave for the private sector where remuneration and working conditions are better,” he said.

He added that there was an acute shortage of literature and other suitable materials for magistrates and judicial officers, which was a major handicap.

“For instance, we have outdated books, which are mainly in hard copy, when the Internet is now the in-thing, which they can use for research,” he said.

“We have a highly motivated staff with a passion for the job, but are handicapped due to lack of resources.”

He added that despite the low salaries and often unattractive working conditions, magistrates had “tried hard to live straight”.