Cup courts mete swift justice

2010-07-10 12:46

Johannesburg - South Africa's special World Cup courts meted justice within days of crimes involving foreigners, an efficiency officials say they will try to replicate for crime-weary locals.

At the Johannesburg Magistrate Court, Lynn Joseph is enduring a more typical experience with the courts as she waits for a fourth remand hearing for her son, who was arrested on June 7 in a statutory rape case.

"Our lives have been disrupted. This is our fourth court appearance and my son is yet to get a bail hearing," she said, as the dedicated World Cup courtroom sits empty.

"The first remand was to allow the police to verify our address before giving bail. After that we were told that the investigator was not finished with the investigation," said Joseph.

"I wish proceedings in these courts were moving as fast as in the World Cup court. Those court rooms are always empty because cases are dealt with as they come," said Joseph, who believes that her son was innocent.

The 56 special courts at the nine host cities around the country intended to prevent additional backlogs to the existing court rolls, and to process crimes involving tourists while they are still in the country, according to the department of justice.

High-profile cases

They have dished out some stiff sentences for minor offences, with first time offenders sent to jail for up to two years for theft.

American party girl Paris Hilton most famously appeared in the special courts on drugs charges, which a judge tossed out within hours of her arrest.

The England fan who walked into the team's locker room, moments after Princes William and Harry left, was fined in the courts less than two weeks after the offence.

Most offenders have been ticket scalpers and thieves, slapped with prison terms within days of the crimes, seen as a breath-taking efficiency.

South African courts' backlogs stretch over three years, with delays often blamed on poor policing that prevents cases from reaching the docket.

Special backlog courts were created in 2006, which did cut the number of unheard cases. But in 2008, one third of the 50,000 cases on the roll were still awaiting trial, according to the justice ministry.

"We need to look at this model critically and extract and use positive aspects in the criminal justice system," justice department spokesperson Tlali Tlali said of the World Cup courts.

"It is operating as a well-oiled machine and we need to look closely to see what has worked."

While ordinary courts operate for six hours a day, the dedicated World Cup operations remain open for 15 hours, equipped with foreign language interpreters, paralegals and other support staff.

"The special courts have set a precedent for the country's criminal justice system. They showed that efficiency could be achieved through dedication and political will," said Sandy Singh, a law expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

"The courts had been a great window dressing for the country, but I hope that lawful procedures were followed during the trial and conviction of people," said Singh.

Just improving staffing at the courts would help Somali immigrant Salim Omar, who first went to court on June 12 on assault charges. His case has been postponed five times, due to a lack of an interpreter.

"I want to clear my name, but this court is letting me down. Every time I arrive in court the case is postponed because they can't find an interpreter," he said.

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