Ronald Lamola. Picture: MDUDUZI NDZINGI
Ronald Lamola. Picture: MDUDUZI NDZINGI

A team consisting of members of the judiciary, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and others in the administration of justice, is investigating court backlogs, says justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola.

This includes backlogs resulting from the effect on court hearings of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Answering questions in the National Council of Provinces, Lamola said a prioritisation process had been put in place to fast-track the processing of these cases. A programme would be put in place shortly to enable the process to function.

The minister acknowledged that the lockdown caused postponement of cases that resulted in prolonged jail time, putting an additional strain on overcrowded correctional facilities.

To ameliorate this situation, courts were prioritising cases in which the accused were in custody. Accused people were also being taken to courts for reviews of their bail in cases where they were granted bail but could not afford it.

Cases struck off the roll due to the lockdown were continually being reviewed and reenrolled in a priority court roll.

Lamola said that the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the extent to which the modernisation and digitalisation of the court system lagged. “In the same breath, the pandemic has presented opportunities to maximise the use of technology in the courts,” he said.

In criminal trials, postponement of cases was taking place through audiovisual links between courts and correctional centres. Unopposed bail applications were also dealt with in this manner.

Virtual platforms were used for urgent motion applications, ex-parte applications and uncontested divorces.

Answering questions on parole for low-risk prisoners in terms of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s undertaking that 19,000 would be released on parole to reduce overcrowding in prisons and reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections, Lamola said 3,557 inmates had been released by June 19.

This together with other normal releases from prison reduced overcrowding of prisons by about 6% to 24,75% as at June 24.

Before the release, the total prison population was 154,943 of which 101,928 were sentenced prisoners, and 53,015 remand detainees and other unsentenced prisoners.

Lamola said minimum progress had been made because of the process to be followed before releasing the sentenced inmates on parole. Releases began on May 20.