Chief Justice’s office stonewalls requests for reports on late judgments

The last available report is for 31 December 2021

By Marecia Damons

26 April 2023

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s office has failed to provide a recent list of reserved judgments, making it hard to hold judges to account for delivering judgments late. Photo: Government website (fair use)

The South African judiciary has failed to provide any updated reports on late judgments since December 2021.

The Office of the Chief Justice (OCJ) used to provide an update on reserved judgments. However, since former spokesperson Nathi Mncube resigned at the end of May last year, the judiciary has failed to provide any up-to-date reports.

Instead of delivering judgment immediately or soon after a hearing or trial finishes, the court may decide to reserve judgment. The judicial norms and standards state that judgments should be handed down within three months of being reserved. In our reports, GroundUp has used a more lenient six-month benchmark.

The last available list on the Judiciary’s website is for 31 December 2021. At that time, nationally, there were 156 court judgments outstanding for six months or more, and 830 judgments outstanding in total. Without an updated report, it is impossible to determine whether these numbers have improved or worsened.

The late judgments report represents a best-case scenario because the system of reporting reserved judgments is an honour one: judges are expected to report their outstanding judgments, but they are not compelled to.

GroundUp, which has been publishing reports on late judgments since 2017, requested an updated list of late judgments from the OCJ on 6 December 2022. The OCJ, in a difficult to understand response, appeared to inform us at the time that the list of late judgments is consolidated annually in a report, but that High Court Judge Presidents are responsible for late judgment reports throughout the year. Previously the late judgment reports had been published three or four times a year, but it is now well over a year since the last report.

We requested another update on 14 March, asking the OCJ to send us the most recent list of outstanding judgments or any statistics on late reserved judgments that might have been compiled in recent months. We received no response.

We followed up again on 3, 11, 18 and 25 April. We received no response. We also sent a request to the head of the Western Cape division of the OCJ, requesting a list of late judgments for the province. But we were referred back to the OCJ’s head office.

Consequences of delayed justice

Mbekezeli Benjamin, a researcher at Judges Matter — which monitors the appointment of judges and the governance of the judiciary — said it is “extremely disappointing” that no new reserved judgments report has been published since December 2021.

“The report has become a crucial tool to hold the judiciary accountable for the performance of its constitutional functions. The principle of accountability is a fundamental principle of South Africa’s constitutional democracy, and applied to all organs of state, including the judiciary.”

Benjamin said when the reports were first published, then Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng promised that they would be released on a quarterly basis.

Benjamin said the public might lose confidence in the judiciary if key information to hold the judiciary accountable is not disclosed timeously and regularly.

“Anecdotally, we are aware that there are dozens of people who have been waiting for upwards of a year to have their judgments delivered. That problem does not go away by simply not publishing the report. The public deserves to know how big the problem of delayed judgments is, and what steps are being taken to remedy it,” said Benjamin.

He said the impact of delayed judgments on the public is severe, especially for children and women who are waiting for maintenance, crime victims who need justice, or small businesses who are owed money.

“Although we do understand that there are factors beyond judges’ control that cause delayed judgments (such as loadshedding, a lack of library resources and administrative support, and poor infrastructure in the courts), judges must never lose sight of the impact delayed judgments have on ordinary people.”

He said judges’ primary responsibility is to deliver judgment on any dispute before them as soon as possible, and “certainly within a reasonable time”.

“Depending on the causes of the delay and realising the harm such a delay causes on the litigating public” said Benjamin, “a judge failing to deliver a judgment within a reasonable timeframe may be liable for judicial misconduct”.

Three retired North Gauteng judges were sharply rebuked by the Judicial Services Commission for taking too long to deliver judgments. Judges Ferdi Preller, Ntsikelelo Poswa and Moses Mavundla were ordered to apologise to litigants.