Justice for Breakfast: the human cost of administrative errors

KYLA HERRMANNSEN

The Wits Justice Project – in association with the Crime, Policing and Criminal Justice Programme at Wits P&DM – recently held its 4th Justice for Breakfast. The roundtable discussion focused on the human cost of administrative errors within the criminal justice system. This Justice for Breakfast was the final one for 2013 – the overwhelming attendance and stimulating conversation ensured that the series ended on a high note.

Those in attendance included representatives from the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, Legal Aid South Africa, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, The Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the European Union delegation to South Africa as well as local media representatives from The Star, the Mail and Guardian and Carte Blanche.

Project Co-ordinator, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, welcomes those in attendance

Project Co-ordinator, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, welcomes those in attendance

The discussion kicked off with a look at the issue of missing transcripts – and how this administrative error often leads to court delays with regards to leave to appeal trials. Those in attendance were vocal, all adding important viewpoints from their fields of expertise. It emerged that the general sentiment accepted by all was that administrative staff are failing to see the bigger picture, they are not seeing the impact that their work has on the entire criminal justice system.

Discussion points included:
1. What is preventing enhanced efficiency?
2. Who should be sanctioning effective actions regarding appeals?
3. What kind of mind-set is required within the Criminal Justice System to make these systemic flaws
exceptional rather than the norm?
4. What would the ideal administrative staff ratio be in the criminal justice sector?
5. Would more administrative staff result in improved administration, or could an investment in
training and developing of current staff to perform more tasks better be a wiser choice?
6. What are the practical solutions that can be implemented immediately to support and/or ease the
administrative burden on the criminal justice system?

An explanation was offered in an attempt to account for the root cause behind missing transcripts. Prior to 2006, one service provider was contracted to undertake both the court recording and the transcribing process. Post 2006, the contract changed to the effect that now the service provider would only be responsible for transcribing, as court records began to be digitally recorded on to CDs. During this transition, it was discovered that the server storing the old service provider’s work had crashed. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development then conducted an audit in order to plot the way forward and to address the issue of the inaccessibility of transcripts.

A new IT system was introduced which in turn crashed. Presently, one company has been contracted as the transcribing service provider and has, over the past few years, been able to restore accessibility to 80% of the transcripts lost during the crashes. They have, as a member of the floor noted, restored functionality to the system.

Our 4th Justice for Breakfasy focused on the human cost of administrative errors

Our 4th Justice for Breakfast focused on the human cost of administrative errors

While this achievement was applauded, the issue was raised from the floor that even in dealing with the same company’s transcriptions, irregularities have been discovered. A case study in which a sentenced offender’s charge sheet read 18 years while his transcript read 18 months was offered as a case study example. It was suggested that there needs to be greater accountability for errors such as this. A responder offered that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development have built a service level agreement with contractors in which penalties apply for work that is not up to standard. Another in attendance noted that people responsible for errors such as this need to be “named and shamed”.

It was also noted that while missing transcripts are “an appalling miscarriage of justice” it is within the duty of the media to report the positive stories. For instance, in reference to the fact that 80% of the previously unavailable transcripts have been restored, a member of the media said “it is incumbent upon us to show the success story”. In closing, the roundtable concluded that greater transparency and communication is required from all involved in the criminal justice system in South Africa.

An official outcome document from the Justice for Breakfast roundtable will soon be made available.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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