Courts coronavirus

Image: Outa

Coronavirus: SA’s major court proceedings likely to be derailed

Fighting against the spread of the coronavirus could throw our courts and their processes into doubt, as the Chief Justice prepares to address the nation.

Courts coronavirus

Image: Outa

The courts of South Africa may face a radical new way of operating between now and when their second term begins in April. The Chief Justice’s office has issued a statement on Tuesday, confirming that an urgent meeting will take place this afternoon to determine how the judiciary deals with the coronavirus outbreak.

How coronavirus could cripple the courts

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a number of directives designed to keep South Africans safe in the face of this unprecedented crisis. One of the measures includes the practice of “social distancing”, which requires people to stay more than a metre away from one another at all times – and it prohibits public gatherings.

Of course, our courts are a hotbed activity, and hearings often attract big groups to small rooms. Tuesday’s meeting of the judiciary is likely to put the brakes on several major processes, and the Gauteng High Court has already blinked in this regard:

How courts will operate under the threat of coronavirus

They announced a set of emergency steps on Monday evening, which come into effect until 14 April 2020. It will serve as a blueprint, for which the rest of the nation is likely to follow. Their temporary set of rules prohibit the in-person filing of new cases, while banning members of the public from attending any court hearings unless they’re directly involved. The whole list includes:

  • Judges will now only deal with matters that have already been submitted – no new cases.
  • Parties in matters which have been postponed due to coronavirus may approach the court for a new date.
  • No-one is allowed to enter a courtroom to file any new charges.
  • Legal practitioners must consult the registrars via e-mail to submit further documentation.
  • New matters can only be enrolled via the Caselines programme.
  • No member of the public is allowed to come and witness court proceedings. Only legal representatives, accused persons and witnesses will be permitted to have access.
  • All introductions are suspended, meaning counsel will not meet judges beforehand. Handshakes are banned.
  • Judges and their secretaries must work from home if they are not scheduled to sit on a particular case or trial.
  • Individual case managements must be conducted via Skype.

COVID-19 and high-profile cases

It all makes for some very interesting hypotheticals. Take Jacob Zuma, for example: He is automatically prohibited from attending his next court date on 6 May…you know, the one where a warrant of arrest will be issued against him if he doesn’t turn up. But his age and medical conditions may mean that, even after the second term begins for the judiciary, he must still avoid public spaces, including courtrooms.

Matters like these are likely to be addressed by the Chief Justice later in the day:

“The heads of court will tomorrow, Tuesday 17 March 2020, convene an urgent meeting to discuss the pronouncement made by President Cyril Ramaphosa relating to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak.

“The meeting seeks to ascertain the measures needed to be adopted, in order to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on the courts. A media briefing will be held by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, and the heads of court, at 13:30 to 14:00.”

Office of the Chief Justice