The magistrate’s commission, a statutory body under the department of justice, has been plagued by long delays in finalising disciplinary processes in misconduct cases against magistrates.

These long delays entailed enormous costs to the state, the chair of the commission’s ethics committee, advocate Cassim Moosa, told a joint meeting of parliament’s two justice committees on Wednesday evening.

Deputy justice minister John Jeffery has also raised his concern about the long delays in the disciplinary processes.

The commission is established under the Magistrates Act among other things to investigate misconduct on the part of magistrates and make recommendations to the minister regarding their suspension and removal from office. Parliament must pass a resolution as to whether or not it approves the removal of magistrates from office.

The commission wants the department and parliament to introduce legislative changes to streamline disciplinary processes.

Moosa said where there had been a flagrant disregard by accused magistrates of the rules of natural justice to unnecessarily delay matters the commission asked parliament to suspend their remuneration.

The Labour Relations Act does not cover magistrates but Moosa pointed out that common law and the bill of rights in the constitution underpinned fair labour practices.

The commission’s advocate Johannes Meijer told MPs that it received over 300 complaints against magistrates in 2015, 170 in 2016, 120 in 2017, 270 in 2018 and 207 in 2019.

A lot of these complaints came from those dissatisfied with the decision of a magistrate, which the commission could do nothing about, but it still took time to respond to them.

There was no backlog in cases despite the delays, Meijer said.

Moosa pointed out that the systemic delays were often caused by the unavailability of witnesses and long processes initiated by the accused magistrate during the disciplinary process. Applications were often made to the high court for a review of the commission’s decision to institute charges.

The accused magistrates also often appointed legal representatives to represent them and these were often unavailable to attend hearings. This caused long delays.

Where the magistrate faced criminal charges for example for fraud or corruption, the magistrates commission was often asked by the prosecutor to stand the disciplinary hearing over until the outcome of the criminal trial.

Moosa briefed the committee on the case of senior magistrate and judicial head of the Mossel Bay district court Letitia Freeman, who finally tendered her resignation shortly before the start of the joint meeting of the two committees to consider her removal from office for misconduct.

Her resignation came after a long process initiated in November 2017 when she was charged by the commission on 29 counts of misconduct for acts of dishonesty between 2015 and 2017 related to false transport claims. She had also failed to disclose her directorship of a company at the time of her appointment and a prior conviction in 1993 of theft. She was found guilty of these charges and the commission recommended to parliament that she be removed from office.

Freeman who pleaded not guilty to all the charges was found guilty in July 2018 and she was provisionally suspended in September 2018.