THE 2016 legal year officially opened on Monday with Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku and judge president George Chiweshe presiding over the process in Harare and Bulawayo respectively. The two officials touched on a number of pertinent issues affecting the justice delivery system and from their addresses, it is clear that our judiciary faces a plethora of challenges which must be attended to as a matter of urgency.
Chief Justice Chidyausiku said the judiciary wants inexperienced and incompetent lawyers barred from representing people in the superior courts because of their low standard of performance. He said debate had begun with the Law Society of Zimbabwe on how the plans could be implemented.
The debate includes whether or not the legal profession should revert to the old system where the superior courts were a preserve of advocates. Before independence, lawyers were divided into advocates and attorneys, with only advocates allowed in the superior courts.
Attorneys are lawyers who do legal work of all kinds and operate from law firms while advocates are specialist litigators who work on a referral basis. In terms of that system, attorneys can represent clients up to the magistrates’ court level, while advocates have unlimited access to superior courts like the High court, the Supreme court and the Constitutional court. Chief Justice Chidyausiku yesterday expressed concern at the performance of some lawyers. He however said advocates had proved to be of much assistance to the superior courts. To that end, the Chief Justice said, the judiciary had engaged the Law Society of Zimbabwe on the best way forward.
“In another forum, I have had occasion to express my views on the standard of legal representation in this country,” he said. “I find it a mixed bag. Some practitioners are very good and assist the court in quickly concluding the matters before the court.
“We in the Constitutional and Supreme Courts have found, as a general rule, that advocates from the side bar are better prepared and are of much assistance to the court,” said the Chief Justice. “On the basis of such observations, we have opened debate with the Law Society of Zimbabwe over the issue of whether or not the profession should remain fused or should be separated into advocates and attorneys.”
Meanwhile, in Bulawayo, Justice Chiweshe slammed judges for letting the judiciary down by delivering rushed judgments with little value at law.
He said judges were stampeding to churn out judgments, most with little or no jurisprudential value. “The current directive is that all judgments must be treated as reportable and posted on the website. The result has been that judgments of little or no significance are given the status they do not deserve.
They are posted on the website as if they were Zimbabwe’s best,” said Justice Chiweshe. “And if you write a judgment and do not treat it as ‘reportable’ (regardless of its significance) your endeavours will count for nothing. Stints in the weekly unopposed motion court where judgments are hard to come by will not give you credit either”.
He bemoaned the backlog of cases at the High court and slated staff in the Prosecutor General’s office and pro deo lawyers for contributing to delays in concluding matters. Justice Chiweshe announced plans to decentralise the High court from Harare and Bulawayo saying the current circuit stations at Hwange-Lupane, Masvingo, Gweru and Mutare would be upgraded to the status of fully fledged High court stations.
This is a welcome development which will help clear the current backlog and improve the efficiency of the justice delivery system. However, the concerns raised by the chief justice over the low standard of performance of some lawyers merits debate and corrective action.
While some legal minds are of the view that Justice Chidyausiku has no business passing verdict over the competence of lawyers, we feel his sentiments are valid since he presides over the superior courts and is qualified to comment on the quality of legal representation clients are receiving. In that vein, the debate over whether to separate attorneys and advocates should continue in a sincere and sober manner so that a solution is found to deteriorating standards in the judiciary system.
On a positive note, the chief justice noted the improved performance of High court judges during the just-ended legal year and this is a welcome development considering the appalling and poor productivity in 2014. In that year, the chief justice threatened all under-performers with disciplinary action after a mere 917 judgments were delivered. Last year, the figure improved dramatically to 1 237 showing that his warning had been heeded.
The problems in the justice delivery system are not insurmountable and can be overcome with unity of purpose and everyone putting their shoulders to the wheel to ensure the system functions efficiently.