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Justice minister, magistrates square off

NKOALE TŠOANA

Judicial Officers Association of Lesotho has schooled Justice Minister Mokhele Moletsane about the essence of their job for allegedly taking their grievances lightly against those of prison wardens.

Moletsane, whose portfolio also includes correctional service, is accused of focusing all his attention on correctional services more than demands of key judicial officers dealing with numerous civil and criminal cases daily to award justice to Basotho.

In a damning letter, the association, better known as JOALE, implores Moletsane to handle grievances by the magistrates with the urgency and seriousness they deserve.

However, Moletsane has personalised content of the letter to JOALE secretary Masupha Kao charging he is “out of order”.

“I don’t want to believe contents of that letter are from magistrates as indicated but rather from Kao personally,” Moletsane told the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism.

But JOALE’s President Molapo Peete has dismissed the minister’s claim the letter was unilaterally penned by Kao, representing his opinion as an individual.

Peete told the Center “that letter and its entire content represent an opinion of all JOALE members”.  

The letter, whose copy was seen by the Centre dated February 2, and signed by Kao, argues it is almost a year since the magistrates engaged the minister beseeching him to facilitate for the creation of “an environment and conditions that will promote an effective and independent magistracy in Lesotho”.

JOALE’s letter further highlights frustrations among the magistrates that the Minister, after a long time, has not produced any tangible response to their grievances.

“It has come to our attention that your Excellency has no place for Magistracy amongst his priorities,” reads part of the JOALE letter.

JOALE shows on several occasions when meeting Moletsane, he would often divert attention from magistrates’ grievances and show concern to challenges facing the Lesotho Correctional Services.

JOALE argues the minister’s undivided attention and focus should be on issues brought by the association in the best interest of ensuring justice is not delayed.

“Due to lack of legal background, it might be difficult for your Excellency to understand why the need to treat Magistrates differently from Prison Warders or any civil servant in the Executive arm of the State,” JOALE told Moletsane.

The association, schooling Moletsane about judicial and executive arms of government relations in the letter, said it is a long-standing tradition that the justice minister is a proxy between the judiciary and executive government.

“…with the duty to promote the smooth running of the Judiciary as well as to facilitate the welfare of judicial officers, magistrates included…We have gone to great lengths trying to explain this to you.”

JOALE cautions the minister that they are judicial officers within Lesotho’s judiciary “which is not a department within the ministry of Justice but an arm of State and should be treated accordingly”.

The association also points out in the letter that Moletsane’s stance to be oblivious to their concerns is tantamount to the justice minister being absent, which they said leaves a void that could lead to total paralysis of the judiciary.

The association further said it holds a strong believe Moletsane does not like part of his ministerial portfolio on justice.

“For any misunderstanding from what we have always explained, we urge your Excellency to seek advice from government’s legal advisor, being Attorney General.”

Furthermore, JOALE also complains about undue delays.

“Whenever we give the minister time, opportunity and space to deal with our grievances, he simply puts everything that concerns Magistrates aside so as to procrastinate the whole process.

“It is only when we mount pressure that the minister will seem to be doing something, but there are no outcomes to date”.

JOALE has also accused Moletsane of failing to act in good faith when dealing with the grievances of the magistrates.

The association further accuses the minister of having claimed to have never received numerous letters inviting him to address their concerns since April 25, 2018.

JOALE also notes that Moletsane’s decision to turn a blind eye to their grievances follows an old trend by his predecessors whose actions, they argue, have been detrimental to the delivery of justice in the country.

Contacted for comment, Kao told the Centre that on December 21, 2018, they had a meeting with Moletsane who promised to table their grievances before an informal cabinet meeting by January 14.

Kao also told the Centre JOALE had reached an agreement with the minister that they should convene on January 28, but to their utter dismay and shock, on agreed day Moletsane was nowhere to be found.

Kao said there was no communication from the minister’s office to update them on latest developments with regard to their grievances being tabled before the cabinet.

Kao said the nature of their work exposed them to criminals, and people whose cases they are dealing with in court.

He said they urgently need to be provided with secure housing to ensure their safety.

He added they operated with inadequate funds which do not cover most of their expenses in the administering of justice.

“We don’t even have necessities like stationary, photo copiers machine and other materials aimed to be used on daily operation of courts,” he said.

Kao also noted shortage of vehicles that are used for judicial purposes. He highlighted that JOALE’s negotiations with the justice ministers dated as far back as in 2006.

He however told the Centre it is worrying that all justice ministers neglected their duty and show the magistrates’ grievances a similar attitude filled with rhetorical promises, procrastinations and neglect.

Moletsane has acknowledged receipt of JOALE’s letter, but said he had not personally seen it as he is currently out of the country.

Quizzed about the cause of the magistrates’ cutting remarks and claims of negligence on his part, the minister said “I don’t want to believe contents of that letter are from magistrates as indicated but rather from Kao personally. He is out of order, he is not telling the truth when he says I don’t take these grievances at heart”.

He promised to enlighten the nation on grievances of the magistrates and how hoped address them upon his return.

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