ZIMBABWE’S senior judicial officers, especially judges from the High Court to the Constitutional Court level, are living in the lap of luxury relatively compared to their counterparts at Independence in 1980, resulting in questions being asked about how fees being collected by the courts are being used by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to fund their opulent lifestyles.
Whereas at Independence judges were allocated one Peugeot 504 motor vehicle and later Mazda 626s, which were assembled locally, now judges upon appointment are entitled to at least three cars, including a Mercedez-Benz E Class, Land Rover Discovery and a 4×4 double-cab, amid mass suffering and poverty.
The JSC is retaining fees for various court processes such as summons, applications, acquiring copies of court documents, estate duty and fines, among others.
Lawyers who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent reported that funds generated through court fees were being channelled towards luxuries instead of basics such as stocking libraries and purchasing and maintaining recording equipment.
The lawyers also said there was likely to be conflict of interest in that the JSC was setting court fees and yet the body was benefitting from the fees, which they argued could be the reason why they were very high.
“There is also a question of whether judicial officers will themselves not be influenced by the quantum of fines that they impose if they know that they will be the end beneficiaries of these fines. There are those who argue that judicial officers will impose maximum fines even where these are not justified in order to increase the percentage of income that will accrue to their employer, thus increasing the likelihood of better remuneration …,” one lawyer said.
The court fees have also resulted in a row between the JSC and other departments in the Ministry of Justice such as the Attorney-General and National Prosecuting Authority’s offices who argue the JSC is not remitting funds to them.
The JSC recently bought Range Rovers for judges through money collected from court fees and also plans to buy cars for 16 more judges by December this year, according to Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku at the Southern African Chief Justices’ Forum in Victoria Falls last month.
Nine additional judges were appointed on Wednesday and will also receive top-of-the-range vehicles.
Chidyausiku thanked Treasury for permitting the JSC to retain court fees and other court funds. He said the move had greatly improved justice delivery and the welfare of judicial officers.
A government official said the JSC collects more than US$150 000 per month from the courts through clerks of court and masters of the High Court.
A prominent lawyer, however, said the life of luxury and ease enjoyed by judges does not enhance delivery of justice.
“A judge on appointment is entitled to a Mercedez-Benz E Class, a Land Rover Discovery and a 4×4 double-cab, with the Chief Justice and Judge President entitled to S Class and Range Rover versions of the vehicles,” said the lawyer.
“There are those who question how the provision of all these luxuries enhances justice delivery. At Independence, judges were allocated one Peugeot 504 motor vehicle and some were allocated Mazda 626 vehicles assembled locally and it is unclear why judges suddenly became entitled to more than one vehicle and the most expensive versions at that.”
Another lawyer said ironically, Denmark has been funding the construction of court buildings, donating basic materials such as books for court libraries and equipment, among other things, while JSC was using its funds on luxury vehicles.
The lawyers also argue that the charges being applied by JSC were exorbitant, pointing out that traditionally, their clerks had served court processes such as court applications, notices of set down cases, among other issues, at much lower rates.
“For instance, lawyers who are in the same building but need to serve a notice of set down on each other must now go to the High Court, pay US$26 to the sheriff who then serves the notice which would have been served at no charge by the lawyer,” said the legal professional.
“… The cost of photocopying at commercial rates ranges from 30-40 pages for US$1 in Harare whereas the JSC charges $1 per page on one side. For instance, a litigant wishing to appeal their case from the Magistrates’ Court to the High Court, or from the High Court to the Supreme Court and the record of proceedings is 800 pages, the person wishing to appeal has to pay US$800.”
The lawyer added: “Where litigants request to go and do their own copies at the cheaper commercial outlets, this is not allowed. These are charges that litigants have to pay before even looking at the lawyers’ fees which themselves are very high. There can be no doubt that many litigants’ rights are thwarted by these exorbitant charges which are out of reach for most ordinary Zimbabweans and that their access to justice is therefore affected.”
Contacted for comment, JSC secretary Justice Rita Makarau acknowledged that court fees might be high for many Zimbabweans. She however said the fees were laid through a Statutory Instrument enacted by the Ministry of Justice.
“All revenue from the courts is controlled by Treasury. I would agree that some of the fees might be high for the ordinary person, but these fees are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and there is a Statutory Instrument enacted by the ministry. The JSC does not set the court fees,” she said.
Makarau said its misinformation for critics to say that the JSC was using court fees revenue to buy judges luxurious vehicles.
“The cars are actually bought by Treasury. It is misinformation to say it’s the Judicial Service Commission. It’s Treasury that buys for us. We have managed to use the funds to do a lot of improvements at the courts. For instance, at the Rotten Row courts we have redone the plumbing and we have engaged cleaners. We have managed to get a few library books for judges, equipment at the Magistrates’ Courts, among many other things,” she said.