New code of conduct for sheriffs

May 1st, 2014
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By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

The Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, recently announced the appointment of new sheriffs and the introduction of a new code of conduct and pledge for sheriffs.

In his address at parliament, he said that the sheriffs’ profession is a critical component of the justice system and that it contributes immensely to the quality and accessibility of justice. Deputy Minister Jeffery said that sheriffs play a critical role in the administration of the civil justice system and are an important interface between the public and the justice system. ‘Their work is critical in the promotion of constitutional rights, which characterises our democratic society,’ he said.

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that this was the reason why it was necessary that the sheriffs’ sector be regularly capacitated and transformed to ensure that it is in line with the Constitution. He added that several steps had been taken to change the sheriffs’ profession’s outlook and functioning.

Sheriff statistics

According to Deputy Minister Jeffery, before 1994 there were 465 sheriffs operating nationally. Of these, 22 (4,73%) were women and 443 (95,27%) were men. In terms of racial demographics of the 465 sheriffs, 414 were white (89,03%), 44 were African (9,46%), five were coloured (1,08%) and two were Indian (0,43%).

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that a nationwide audit of the sheriffs’ profession in 2009 revealed that of the 546 sheriffs, 76% were white, while 24% were black and women comprised only 9% of all sheriffs.

‘The audit also revealed that most sheriffs who are white were appointed in the most lucrative offices which were situated in the metropolitan areas and affluent cities and suburbs, while the majority of sheriffs who are black were appointed in former homelands and traditionally black townships and rural villages which generated a low income,’ he said.

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that according to the South African Board for Sheriffs as at 1 October 2013 there were 348 permanent sheriffs operating in the country. Of these, 171 are white (49%), 128 African (37%), 26 Indian (7%) and 23 coloured (7%). He added that this resulted in a 6,73% increase of black persons (African, Indian and coloured) represented in the profession. Of the 348 permanent sheriffs, 271 were men, representing 78% and 77 were women.

In February this year, Deputy Minister Jeffery appointed 18 sheriffs to various vacant sheriff offices. Of these, 11 are African (61%), three are white, two are coloured and two are Indian. Six of these are women.

The newly appointed sheriffs bring the total number of permanent sheriffs in the country from 348 to 362 (the total number of sheriffs is only affected by 14 of the 18 appointments as four are already permanent sheriffs in neighbouring sheriff offices that are not economically viable on their own).

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that 16 of the newly appointed sheriffs would assume duty as of 1 June 2014, after completing a mandatory induction training programme. The other two would take up office on 1 July and 9 September.

Deputy Minister Jeffrey stated: ‘Whilst there is still a long way to go, these appointments have gone a substantial way to making the profession more representative and in line with the transformative vision and goals of our Constitution.’

Code of conduct

The Deputy Minister also announced that the South African Board for Sheriffs, with the approval of the Minister, has adopted a new code of conduct and pledge for sheriffs with effect from 1 March 2014.

According to him, the sheriff’s code of conduct had last been updated in 1990 when the Sheriffs Act 90 of 1986 was amended, resulting in the code not being in line with the Constitution.

‘The conduct of the sheriff or deputy sheriff plays a big part in how people perceive the law and the legal system. If people view the law and the justice system as hostile, negative and ineffective, there will be no respect for the rule of law. All of our people must be able to have confidence in the justice system and have the belief that the system will protect their rights and that they will be treated fairly and equally,’ Deputy Minister Jeffery said.

The new code of conduct contains provisions including:

  • The conduct of a sheriff entrusted with the service or execution of a process must act without avoidable delay in accordance with the rules of court and provided that any process, requiring urgent attention shall be dealt with immediately.
  • That trust money must be paid out to the person entitled thereto without avoidable delay.
  • A sheriff may not perform any act as sheriff in any matter in which he or she has a direct or indirect interest.
  • A sheriff must serve members of the public in the official language in which he or she is addressed or otherwise communicated with.

Deputy Minister Jeffery said that central to the new code is the requirement for all sheriffs to hold constantly in high regard the rights of all citizens in performing their functions.

Pledge

‘In terms of the new code, sheriffs will be expected to undertake a pledge before they can start practising. The sheriff will pledge to uphold the constitutional rights of all citizens and to uphold the principles of good governance by maintaining a high standard of accountability, transparency, honesty and integrity. The South African Board for Sheriffs is currently in the process of training all sheriffs on this new code of conduct and in ensuring that all sheriffs have taken this pledge,’ Deputy Minister Jeffery said.

Deputy Minister Jeffery concluded by saying that the Justice Department was confident that the new code of conduct and pledge would go a long way in improving service delivery by the sheriffs’ profession and would also assist in renewing the public’s faith in the profession.

The chairperson of the South African Board for Sheriffs, Charmaine Mabuza, told De Rebus that she welcomes the new code of conduct that has been brought in line with the Constitution. She added that under the new code, sheriffs are required to execute court orders without undue delay and that they must serve the public in a language they understand. ‘Sheriffs and their deputies are obliged to respect the citizens of South Africa when performing their duties and functions as a sheriff. The code ensures compliance with national legislation and constitutional imperatives,’ she said.

Challenges

Ms Mabuza said that the biggest challenges facing sheriffs are interpleader proceedings, where property is attached and a third party has a claim to it. Ms Mabuza added that other challenges were that the public and communities did not necessarily understand the role and function of the sheriff adding that at times they hamper and obstruct the sheriffs when they execute their tasks. Ms Mabuza said that sheriffs were also experiencing difficulty with the execution of Labour Court matters and small claims court matters.

Ms Mabuza stated that it was gratifying to see that the demographics of the sheriff’s profession had changed dramatically since the new dispensation, with the number of black and female sheriffs increasing. She added that 96 of the sheriffs are female making 18,75% of sheriffs countrywide, 40 of whom are African.

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele, nomfundo@derebus.org.za

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (May) DR 11.

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