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MPs to ask for more money for justice dept

Apr 19 2012 17:23 Sapa

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Parliament - MPs have vowed to request more funding for the justice department after hearing how courts have fallen into disrepair, judges are unable to access records and vacancies remain because there are no offices for new recruits.

"We will make representations to the appropriations committee," Luwellyn Landers, the chairperson of parliament's portfolio committee on justice, said on Thursday after three days of briefings by the department.

"We cannot allow this to happen to justice."

The committee will then petition Treasury to adjust the medium-term expenditure framework for the department, which has faced budget cuts in real terms since 2009.

Acting chief financial officer Johan Johnson said the situation at this point was so dire - with an annual budget of R15.4bn - that in lower courts the department spent 78% of its allocation on salaries and only 22% on operations.

"We would have liked to at least achieve the public service ideal ratio of 60% to 40%."

Johnson said it was impossible to change the equation at present because the department simply did not have the money to open more facilities. It was therefore battling to fulfil its obligations under the Child Justice Act, the Sexual Offences Act and the Child Maintenance Act because it lacked both the staff and the service points.

"There is no point appointing more staff if you have nowhere to put them."

He warned that a budget allocation of an additional R100m for court infrastructure would not go far, and once new courts were built there would likely be a lack of funds to run them.

"If we are going to open the Limpopo High Court, we will need operational funds to run that court."

A chief director at the department, Tshilidzi Ramanyimi, said the department had a backlog of 55 infrastructure projects at the moment. The cash shortfall meant it faced a stark choice between starting these and doing maintenance on existing structures.

"Our infrastructure is very old. The Durban High Court is over 40 years old and has not been upgraded. That will lead to a frequent breakdown of equipment.

"So unfortunately we are not talking about an upgrade, we are talking about a total overhaul that puts a lot of strain on our limited budget. So we have to strike a balance. Do we upgrade what we have in place, or do we go and provide a service where there is none?"

The committee heard that maintenance problems persisted even at the Supreme Court of Appeal, and expressed particular concern about the plight of staff at the high court in Johannesburg.

According to a report by the deputy judge president of the court last year, judges have for years battled with incomplete and inaccurate court records. It warned that plans for five new courtrooms were hopelessly inadequate to accommodate the division's growing caseload.

The justice department's budget is forecast to grow at 5.9% annually for the next two financial years. Johnson said this made it nigh impossible to absorb inflationary pressures and expand services.

The National Prosecuting Authority told MPs it needs at least an additional R250m a year to appoint more prosecutors to meet its performance targets.

National Director for Public Prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba said pleas to National Treasury in this regard have thus far fallen on deaf ears.

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