Justice and Constitutional Development Deputy Minister John Jeffery says the country's courts have made great strides to maintain high conviction rates over the past financial year.
Jeffery said this when he led the presentation of the annual reports of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and the National Prosecuting Authority in Parliament on Wednesday.
With regards to court performance, great strides have been made to ensure that high conviction rates were maintained and improved on, in all court forums, he said.
Briefing MPs, Jeffery said the conviction rate for the 2017/18 financial year stood at 91.7% against a target of 87%.
He said historically � over several financial years � the performance of the high courts has fluctuated.
While the conviction rate stood at 91% during the 2014/15 financial year, it dropped to 89.9% in 2015/2016 before going up to 91% in 2016/2017.
Jeffery said, meanwhile, that the regional courts achieved a record conviction rate in two decades.
The regional courts have also gradually increased from 76.6% in 2014/2015 to 78.4% in 2015/2016, 79.8% in 2016/2017 and 81% in 2017/2018 against a target of 74%.
In the district courts, we have increased our performance from 94.2% in 2014/2015 to 94.7% and 95.6% in the years thereafter, with 96.1% in 2017/2018 against a target of 88%.
The performance of the 2017/18 financial year represents the best conviction rate performance over the last two decades, he said.
Measures to deal with overcrowding at corrections facilities
Jeffery said, meanwhile, that with regards to the remand detainees, the department, in conjunction with the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster departments and the respective justice entities, have put in place measures to monitor the status of all persons awaiting the finalisation of their cases for long periods.
He said backlog cases are those that remain on the roll longer than six months in the district court and longer than nine months from enrolment in the high court till finalisation.
The Chief Justice has in his norms and standards for all courts indicated that in terms of criminal matters accused must plead before three months after enrolment and the matter must be finalised within six months.
Once a case is longer on the roll than the six or nine months, the matter is to be provided preferential treatment and should be prioritised before any other newer matter. Thus the oldest cases must be prioritised, he said.
Jeffery said in this regard, the NPA, Legal Aid and magistracy is monitoring the long outstanding cases and discusses them at Regional and District Efficiency Enhancement Committees and at Case flow management forums.
The NPA is also pushing for pre-trial hearings in the lower courts to ensure all issues including investigations are finalised as soon as possible and that the cases when enrolled for trial are ready to be adjudicated.
The challenges preventing finalisation within the periods indicated are, amongst others, that the matters going to trial are more complex with many accused - especially in the regional courts, he said.
He also said that resource constraints with less legal aid representatives available requiring longer postponements, and less prosecutors was also a challenge.
Jeffery said blockages such as interpreters - especially regarding foreign national cases; and transcription services taking long, equipment or system issues also impact on cases having to be postponed.
Prevention, combating gender-based and sexual violence cases a priority
Jeffery said the prevention and combating of gender-based and sexual violence remain high on the department's agenda.
He said the department has continued with the roll-out of sexual offences courts.
An additional 17 court rooms were adapted in line with the sexual offences model and this brought the total number of court rooms adapted to 75.
As we continue to implement these specialised courts, emphasis will equally be placed on ensuring that these courts continue to operate optimally in line with specifications.
The improved conviction rate in sexual offences of 72.7% is an all-time high, reflecting a firm commitment to deliver justice for the most vulnerable members of society: the victims of sexual offences and gender based violence, he said.
Progress made in transforming the court bench
The Deputy Minister said, meanwhile, that progress has been made in ensuring that magistrates that reflect the demographics of the country are appointed.
In fact, if we compare the race and gender breakdown of the magistracy in 1998 with the position at the end of February 2018, there has been an increase of 163% of black magistrates and a 249% increase of women in the magistracy.
The number of African female magistrates has increased from 62 in 1998 to 472 in 2018 � an increase of 661%, he said.
Source: South African Government News Agency