Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN/MDUDUZI NDZINGI.
Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN/MDUDUZI NDZINGI.

The budget of the justice department was cut by R416m in the supplementary budget but it has still managed to increase its budget for information technology and modernisation, one of its key priorities in the coming years.

The budget for information technology and modernisation was increased from R529m to R663m. Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola said this would be supplemented by a further planned expenditure of R688m earmarked for the integrated justice system programme.

The department’s total budget was cut from R22.4bn to R21.9bn by the supplementary budget which imposed heavy cuts on a number of departments to cater for Covid-19 expenditure and the anticipated shortfall in revenue.

“Covid-19 has laid bare missed opportunities over the past couple of years to modernise our justice system,” Lamola said in his speech on the justice budget vote in the National Assembly on Thursday.

“To this end, I am pleased that our Domestic Violence Bill will introduce modernisation in a radical form. If passed, our bill will make it possible for one to apply for a protection order online. This will be a leap forward in the fight against gender-based violence and femicide. This is the first of several reforms we want to introduce.

“For instance, there is no reason uncontested divorce applications and maintenance applications cannot be done online.”

Lamola noted that in the previous financial year the department had rolled out the person identification and verification application system which is located in police stations. The system enables the identity of arrested individuals to be verified using their fingerprints and checked against the department of home affairs records.

“More than 227,098 accused persons have been verified via this system and over 135,968 of these individuals (60%) had prior criminal records that could be referenced. A further 6,205 (2.3%) wanted persons could be identified and linked to SAPS circulations as persons of interest for other cases.”

Lamola noted that last week the first fully paperless case trial simulation took place with all parties in court being able to use their own laptops and/or mobile tablets to access and refer to digital versions of case materials.

Also, the digital case management pilot project was successfully completed and operationalised at the Johannesburg High Court and Pretoria high court. A centralised court e-filing help desk was established to provide support to judges, court officials  and legal practitioners. The system would be expanded across the country in the current financial year.

Chair of parliament’s justice and constitutional development portfolio committee Bulelani Magwanishe also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had highlighted the urgent need to modernise court processes.

“The committee has noted the department's intention to accelerate ICT projects aimed at fast-tracking court modernisation and digitisation. These include the rollout of the audiovisual remand link systems to additional courts and correctional centres.

 “These secure audiovisual facilities at regional and districts courts in major centres are to be developed to allow for virtual trials.”

Magwanishe said the committee was “extremely concerned” about the growing case backlogs which have deteriorated during the lockdown. This would have to be addressed “to prevent risking a breakdown of our judicial system”, he said.

DA justice spokesperson Glynnis Breytenbach was sceptical about the promises of modernising the justice system, noting that the integrated justice system had been on the drawing board for the past 20 years and “shows no progress whatsoever. Vast amounts of money have been poured into this bottomless pit, with no discernible returns.”

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