South African justice system going high-tech

South Africa’s justice department is going high-tech next month with a system that will prevent meddling with case files, high court Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann said on Thursday.

“With this system, judges will be given an electronic case file the moment a case is opened. The electronic files will be saved in a server and will have certain features to prevent meddling,” he said.

Bertelsmann was talking at the Consumer Goods Council of SA’s annual conference in Johannesburg. He said the new system was decided on at a national judiciary meeting in 2009, and was being initiated this year.

“Previous chief justice Sandile Ngcobo endorsed this model and his enthusiasm has been carried over with new Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng,” Bertelsmann said.

In July, Ngcobo said the system would prevent a backlog of trials.

“While it previously took hours or days to send documents from one point to another, now this can be done in seconds via e-mail,” he said.

“If the proper systems are in place and the necessary hardware available, it is now possible for busy judges to access court documents from anywhere.”

Bertelsmann said the overhaul would revitalise a criminal justice system “creaky in its joints”.

“We have 40,000 people awaiting trial in prisons. Some are granted bail, and others can’t even raise R300 needed for bail.

“It is unfair that we punish people at a cost to ourselves that is greater than R300, because these people are poor. That does not sit well with a Constitution that demands equality and dignity.”

Bertelsmann said the current justice system brought out the worst qualities in people.

“The profession of law produces strife, conflict, greed and bitterness. We are hoping to change these inefficient, musty and impractical processes.”

He said the new system was based on models used in the United States of America and in Singapore.

“We went there and saw that each judge has two desktop computers and they determine the timeframes through which a trial occurs. Every step in the judiciary process is overseen by the judge.”

He said an efficient, and technologically advanced system would benefit the consumer goods council as well.

“How would we deal with crime, protect brands and patents, guard against unfair competition and protect labourers from being exploited if we never had courts?” the judge asked.

“We are embarking on a very exciting trek… that has filled us with optimism. This new process demands a new culture, and we need the support of all members of civil society, including consumer organisations.”

The system required judges to undergo a training programme.

“Law is always about learning, because things change very often,” Bertelsmann said.

“We do need to train people to deal with the system, especially older people like myself, who might find it harder to understand the technology. All of this is going to take time.”

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South African justice system going high-tech