A DARK cloud hangs over the administration of justice with Lesotho’s magistrates mulling a strike over the government’s failure to address their long-standing welfare grievances including concerns about poor salaries which are said to be as low as half of those of High Court judges.
The magistrates say the government has also failed to give them adequate protection from assailants.
The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has learnt that the grievances, which range from concerns about the welfare disparities between magistrates and High Court judges to the alleged lack of judicial independence, threaten the delivery of justice by the magistrates throughout the country’s ten districts.
The grievances have been outlined by the Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho (JOALE) in numerous correspondences with successive governments from as far back as 2005.
However, the governments have allegedly done little by way of concrete action to ensure the safety, independence and welfare of magistrates and support officers.
More recently, JOALE secretary, Masopha Kao, wrote to Prime Thomas Thabane on 12 February 2018 to request a meeting over the magistrates’ grievances. But the meeting has not materialised and JOALE president Molapo Peete said they have not received a response from the premier.
“I cannot pre-empt the next course of action but given that the Prime Minister has not responded, we will go back to our membership to give us direction,” Peete said.
Although Messrs Kao and Peete say their letter was received by the prime minister’s office, Dr Thabane’s spokesperson, Thabo Thakalekoala, professed ignorance of the issue.
Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka also said he had not seen the letter but promised to deliver it to the premier after MNNCIJ showed him a copy.
Part of JOALE letter states: “We, His Majesty’s magistrates, would like to have a meeting with Your Excellency (Dr Thabane) as soon as practicably, reasonably and conveniently possible”.
“The purpose of the meeting is to discuss magistrates’ grievances with Your Excellency regarding our shocking poor salaries and benefits. These grievances have been tabled before various authorities for more than a decade but have still not been given the attention they deserve.”
The magistrates say their low salaries and benefits are extremely depressing “and do not promote the commitment and urge to go the extra mile”.
“Not only are the salaries and benefits completely not befitting of Judicial Officers, they are also an embarrassment to us.
“In terms of section 118(3) of the constitution…the executive is mandated to assist the courts to maintain their independence, dignity and effectiveness. However, there is very little support we get from government in this regard.”
Mr Peete said they even engaged Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara who had promised that “she would go to beg the cabinet as she had no power (to address their plight)”.
He said they have not received any feedback from Justice Majara despite her promise to engage the government on their behalf last July.
Mr Peete said the majority of the magistrates were vulnerable due to their reliance on public transport.
He said the magistrates were forced to rely on taxis that were sometimes driven by the very people they had imprisoned at some point.
“Because of our meagre salaries most of us do not have our own vehicles and we are forced to rely on public transport. This could culminate in deadly consequences.”
In 2016, unknown assailants attacked the home of magistrate ’Masechaba Mothetho in the northern district of Butha-Buthe.
“I was sleeping and heard two gun-shots,” Ms Mothetho said of that fateful night.
She said things apparently returned to normal afterwards and she went to sleep only to discover soil and a bullet on her bedroom floor the next morning.
“I also saw a bullet hole on the wall of my bedroom,” she recently told the MNNCIJ. The case is still being investigated and the culprits remain at large.
Ms Mothetho is convinced that the attack was in retaliation over one of the numerous cases she had presided over.
“Based on evidence, I may find a suspect guilty and imprison them. But that may enrage their relatives who may attack me,” she said.
She said even in cases of murder where suspects are granted bail by the High Court, the magistrates were the ones who read out the bail conditions to suspects. She said as a result, “in the public’s view, it is the magistrates who release the perpetrators and (the magistrates) may be attacked in retaliation”.
“We are at a very high risk as the work we do has turned us enemies of the people we serve.”
Mr Peete said very little if anything had been done about ensuring the safety of magistrates’ despite their representations to successive governments.
“In Maseru, Magistrates are forced to seek accommodation in the heart of locations where some cheap accommodation, befitting their wallets, is available.
“Most of the time at these places the magistrates find themselves renting flats with accused persons. Needless to mention, this compromises their security, independence and integrity as judicial officers,” Mr Peete said.
Chief Magistrate ‘Matankiso Nthunya admitted police drivers only protected chief magistrates.
She revealed this was decided in a meeting with heads of security agencies –National Security Services, army and police – and presided over by the-then Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing.
“We were asked to make a proposal on how our security could be ensured. We then submitted our proposal to the office of the DPM but that has not yielded any results other than that chief magistrates have been given police guards,” she said.
Ms Nthunya said among other things, they had requested for more vehicles for magistrates.
She said while each district initially had a vehicle and wanted more so that commuting magistrates could be ferried to their homes safely, things had deteriorated to the current situation where “we now have only three vehicles countrywide”.
The MNNCIJ has also established that the magistrates are irked by the gap between them and the judges.
According to the Statutory Salaries (Amendment of Schedule) Regulations 2018, Judges of the High Court earn M468 828 per annum and they are entitled to Category A allowances and privileges equivalent to those of cabinet ministers.
These benefits include among others: a rent-free government house or payment of housing allowance of M3500; an official government vehicle or car allowance determined by responsible ministers; free electricity, telephone and water and personal staff that comprise of an executive secretary, house helper, gardener and chauffeur.
On the other hand, ordinary magistrates’ salaries range from M177 192 (Grade G first notch) to M256 920 (Grade H last notch).
This is according to Circular Notice No 2 of 2018 on the revision of salaries and pensions released by the Ministry of Public Service Principal Secretary, Tšeliso Lesenya.
According to Mr Kao, most magistrates have no other benefits except a monthly M226 retention allowance.
Mr Kao further argues that the discrepancies cannot be justified as judges and magistrates are employed on the basis of the same qualifications, namely a Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB).
He said several High Court Judges only held an LLB degree and he was one of 11 magistrates who hold a Master of Laws (LLM) qualification.
Mr Peete added that it was an anomaly that although magistrates were under the Judicial Service Commission, their salaries were determined in terms of Public Service salaries structures yet “we are not civil servants”.