“Vanished”: Robertson Abattoir court settlement goes missing

No record of dismissed workers’ agreement in court file

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Former Robertson Abbatoir workers Johan Filander and Piet Rossouw outside the Labour Court in 2014. The settlement reached between workers and the company has gone missing. Photo: Daneel Knoetze

At the end of last year former Robertson Abattoir workers who lost their jobs in 2010 reached a settlement agreement with the abattoir. This followed a lengthy court battle where the workers originally lost their case in the Labour Court in 2015, appealed the matter and had their case sent back to the Labour Court.

But it looks like the public will never know the details of the settlement as none of the parties appear to have a copy of this agreement and, more shockingly, neither does the court.

GroundUp attempted to follow the murky trail of the settlement on 9 January this year when we discovered that the case was sent back to the Labour Court in December 2016.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), who represented the dismissed workers’ union the Commercial Stevedoring Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union (Csaawu), told GroundUp that a settlement has been reached but that they didn’t have a copy of the agreement.

A SERI staff member told us that the organisation would contact the registrar and the judge’s clerk to obtain a copy.

After a few follow-ups, Thulani Nkosi from SERI, who was the attorney on the case, told us that the document had mysteriously “vanished” from the court file. He said that possibly the judge or the registrar misplaced the document.

During this time GroundUp also contacted CSAAWU. An official told us the union did not have the document but that SERI would. The representative whom we spoke to was unable to give us the exact details of the settlement.

We then contacted Bisset Boehmke McBlain Attorneys who represented Robertson Abattoir, hoping that they would have a copy. But the person we spoke to told us that we should go to court to secure a copy of the settlement and didn’t say whether or not the firm had the document.

Onwards to the advocates we went. Advocate Anna-Marie de Vos for SERI told us that she didn’t have the document. The advocate on the other side was Lourens Ackermann, who also told GroundUp that he didn’t have it.

When we went to the Labour Court itself to confirm that SERI had received the correct information regarding the “vanished” document, GroundUp was given the case file but the settlement agreement was missing from the wad of documents. When we attempted to question one of the Labour Court’s staff as to why the document was not in the folder, she simply shrugged her shoulders.

Finally we went to Judge Anton Steenkamp himself, the man who had made the matter an order of court. His secretary told us that the judge doesn’t keep these records and that the settlement should be in the case file. “That cannot be,” was her response when we told her that the settlement agreement was missing from the file.

Court documents are meant to be available to the public from the time that they are filed. This is in keeping with the principle of “open justice”. Missing court documents can have profound consequences as in the case of Pieter Jacobs, a convicted murderer, who was set free after virtually all the court records that the High Court needed to make a decision on his appeal went missing.

In a 2001 article on missing court files in the North and South Gauteng High Courts, Amabhungane wrote that the files “go missing apparently owing to theft in some instances and carelessness in others”.

Amabhungane was told by a member of the South Gauteng High Court’s administrative staff that, “Files just go missing mysteriously.”

Whether the settlement agreement in the Robertson Abattoir matter will one day be found in a dusty corner of the Labour Court remains to be seen, but for now, the public won’t know how the matter was concluded in court.

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TOPICS:  Court Labour Unions

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