It is undeniable that genuine access to justice is more than just improving access to courts. It is the ability of all people who have grievances to seek and obtain remedies through institutions of justice.
by Obert Chinhamo
There is no access to justice when citizens fear the system, see it as favouring the rich, do not access it or when justice is financially inaccessible due to prohibitive court fees and other charges.
I am not going to dwell on an overabundance of other obstacles towards access to justice, but will zoom on the costs of seeking justice in Zimbabwe, which is as a huge challenge for the poor. It never rains but it pours for the poor when it comes to the costs of seeking justice through the Zimbabwean courts of law.
There are many grievances that have remained unresolved simply because of the fact that litigants are failing and continue to fail to raise court and Messenger of Court fees.
It is my considered opinion that the situation of the poor would have been worse if there were no institutions such as the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, Zimbabwe Women Lawyers’ Association (ZWLA), Musasa Project, and the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-Southern Africa) among others, who are facilitating access to justice through free legal and paralegal advice to the indigent section of society.
Nevertheless, there are other unavoidable costs that cannot be paid by the providers of legal aid, which make it difficult for the poor to access justice. I will cite a few case studies or examples based on personal experience.
In Kwekwe, there is the story of an old widow whose water supplies were wrongfully and unlawfully disconnected by the local authority without following the due process of the law.
The widow owed the local authority $50. Upon being disconnected, she approached legal aid providers, who assisted her to draft an urgent chamber application for spoliation, which the magistrate granted.
The order instructed the local authority and the Messenger of Court to immediately reconnect water supplies to the widow’s house. However, one of the preconditions set by the court was that she should pay $10, which she did not have but managed to borrow from her neighbours and other well-wishers.
She managed to pay the Magistrates’ Court and the Order was released. She proceeded to the Messenger of Court, who demanded $70 in order to facilitate the re-connection thereof.At that stage, the widow failed to raise the money and decided to abandon the legal route.
To date, she has no water at her house. This is just one example of a woman who failed to access justice and in the process her constitutional rights continue to be violated.
As if that is not enough, the second case involves another resident of Kwekwe whose water supplies were disconnected but failed to raise court fees to the tune of $10 and in the process, the Magistrates’ Court refused to release the court order and to date the resident has no water supply at his house.
There are many cases, but let me conclude by citing the case of 20 residents of Redcliff Municipality who were evicted from their houses by the local authority.
Again, the givers of free legal and paralegal advice moved in to assist. In order to succeed with a court application, each of the residents was told to pay $48 as security costs and court fees.
Considering the fact that the majority of the residents are unemployed and have no means whatsoever, they failed to raise the security and court fees. Even if they had succeeded, the Messenger of Court would have demanded payment of $70 from each litigant in order to unlock the houses from which they were evicted.
In this context, seeking justice was denied.
What is undeniable from the above scenarios is that the poor are failing to access justice in the country, because of the exorbitant court and Messenger of Court fees.
The status quo should not remain as it is but the Zimbabwean leadership is challenged to ensure that the justice system is pro-poor.
In the above cases, constitutional rights of the people continue to be violated simply because of the prohibitive costs of taking grievances to court and the enforcement thereof.