Sexual offences courts to be re-established

September 1st, 2013
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By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe has released a report on the outcome of intensive research done by the Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters (Mattso). Mattso was commissioned to investigate the viability of re-establishing sexual offences courts in June 2012. Minister Radebe said that the report was one of the initiatives that seeks to bring improvements in the manner the courts deal with sexual offences cases.

At the media briefing Minister Radebe said that the concept of sexual offences courts was first introduced in the country at the Wynberg regional court in Cape Town in 1993. He said the pilot project was aimed at responding to and preventing the increasing figures of rape cases reported in the area at the time. ‘The pilot project proved to be a huge success as it maintained the conviction rate of up to 80% over a period of a year. This became a strong motivation for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to establish further sexual offences courts around the country,’ he said.

Minister Radebe said that in 1999 the NPA first established sexual offence courts in Mdantsane, Soweto, Bloemfontein, Durban, Parow and Grahamstown and by the end of 2005, there were 74 sexual offences courts countrywide. ‘Two of the main achievements of the sexual offences courts were an increase in conviction rates and a decrease in turnaround time from the date of report to the police up to the finalisation of the case’, he said.

Minister Radebe said that although the courts recorded ‘considerable success’, there were a number of challenges that led to their demise. Some of the challenges were –

  • a lack of a specific legal framework to establish these courts;
  • a lack of a dedicated budget;
  • poor visibility of these courts in remote areas;
  • restricted space capacity in courts;
  • a lack of training of court personnel; and
  • a lack of a monitoring and evaluation mechanism developed specifically for the management of these courts.

Minister Radebe said that despite the above challenges, nine of these sexual offences courts continued to operate in various areas of the country, which included Port Elizabeth, Durban, Johannesburg, Kimberly, Welkom, Bloemfontein, Wynberg, Parow and Moretele. He added that a number of courts were also dedicated to prioritise sexual offences related matters by the regional court presidents and that the Justice Department also put in more resources into these courts in order to reduce secondary victimisation.

The Minister said that the Mattso findings show that the current court system requires special courts to ensure an adequate response to the special needs of sexual offence victims.

Mattso findings

Minister Radebe said that, after numerous deliberations and analysis of the research, the task team came to the conclusion that there were sufficient grounds and a compelling need for the re-establishment of the courts. It found that the courts were in line with the ethos of the objects of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, which seek to afford complainants of sexual offences the maximum and least traumatising protection.

The task team found that the re-establishment of the courts will reinforce the establishment of a victim-centred court system that is prompt, responsive and effective. The courts were also found to be successful in the –

  • reduction of secondary victimisation;
  • improvement of skills of court personnel;
  • reduction of the cycle time in the finalisation of sexual offences cases; and
  • contribution to the efficient prosecution and adjudication of these cases.

‘The task team also found that most of the specifications of the Blueprint for Sexual Offences Courts are still recognised as an international best practice model, and therefore ought to be retained,’ said Minister Radebe.

Minister Radebe said that the task team found that, of the 567 courts sitting as regional courts (including circuit courts), 49 were resourced closest to the sexual offences model in that they have at least two waiting rooms available. A further 106 courts were also resourced close to the model in that they have a waiting room specifically dedicated to child witnesses, but do not necessarily have a second waiting room. ‘The audit further revealed that many of these courts were capacitated with the required human resources such as the regional magistrate, prosecutor, intermediary, interpreter and court operations clerk,’ he said.

Recommendations

Minister Radebe said that the task team made several recommendations that would see the successful implementation of the sexual offences courts. These recommendations include:

  • An upgrade of existing dedicated sexual offences courts into sexual offences courts.
  • An investigation to determine the feasibility of merging the various specialised/dedicated victim support services and one-stop centres into a model one-stop centre that will function to optimise the performance of the sexual offences courts.
  • A feeding scheme for child witnesses must be investigated for possible introduction in these courts and be properly costed.
  • An integrated monitoring and evaluation framework must be developed to ensure the effective and efficient intersectoral management of the sexual offences courts.
  • A South African qualifications authority accredited training programme to capacitate all functionaries involved in the administration of sexual offences courts.

Minister Radebe said that the task team also developed a court model that introduces the necessary resources for the adjudication of sexual offences cases, especially those involving children and persons with mental disabilities. In terms of this model, courts offering these services must have the following resources:

  • A proper screening process to identify cases that fall within the sexual offences category.
  • Case-flow management that is custom-made for sexual offences.
  • A special room from which the victim will testify, which must have minimal furniture and decoration.
  • A private waiting room for adult witnesses.
  • A private waiting room for child witnesses.
  • Victim support services.
  • Designated court clerks.
  • A group of specialist presiding officers who have experience in criminal law matters and who have undergone specified training on child development, working with mental disabilities and the dynamics of sexual offences.
  • A court preparation programme for witnesses to prepare them for court and to provide debriefing after they have testified.
  • A debriefing programme for court personnel.

‘The task team was also specific in its recommendation of equipment that is necessary for the efficient functioning of the sexual offences courtroom. These include:

  • A two-way closed circuit television system to enable the child to identify the accused from the testifying room.
  • A separate monitor for the presiding officer to ensure increased visibility of the image and control of the system.
  • A large screen monitor for the other members of the court.
  • A monitor in the testifying room for purposes of allowing the victim to identify the accused,’ said the Justice Minister.

Minister Radebe said that the personnel requirements for each court included –

  • a presiding officer;
  • two prosecutors;
  • an intermediary;
  • an interpreter;
  • a designated court clerk;
  • a designated social worker;
  • a legal aid practitioner; and
  • a court preparation/victim support officer.

Minister Radebe said that work for the implementation of the recommendations had already commenced as the Justice Department had already identified 57 regional courts for upgrading and equipment with modern technology to operate as sexual offences courts. ‘This work has commenced in the 2013/14 financial year. We believe that these sexual offences courts will help address the growing challenge of sexual offences in the country, particularly against vulnerable groups,’ he said.

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

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (Sept) DR 10.

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