Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, Senior Reporter
COVID-19 negatively affected the delivery of justice in 2021 leaving the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) with a backlog of 1 642 cases in Bulawayo courts.
Officially opening the 2022 Legal Year at the Bulawayo High Court yesterday, Deputy Chief Justice Elizabeth Gwaunza said Covid-19 hugely disrupted court operations and the smooth administration of justice in the past two years.
The backlog nationally from the Constitutional, Supreme, Labour, High, Regional and the Magistrates’ courts from 2021 stands at 17 070 cases.
The Magistrates’ Court, which is the busiest, is divided into the criminal and civil parts.
Statistics from JSC show that the temporary closure of courts affected both the number of cases heard and completed in the Bulawayo Magistrates’ Court.
Most trials did not take off due to the temporary closure of the courts.
The Constitutional Court had nine outstanding cases from the 2020 legal year in Bulawayo and 34 more cases were lodged last year making the total 43.
Twenty-six of the cases were completed, leaving 17.
The Supreme Court had a backlog of 66 cases from 2020, including both applications and appeals.
It received 61 cases last year, taking the total to 127, and 101 cases were dealt with, leaving 26 uncompleted cases.
The Bulawayo High Court Civil Division had 1 655 cases, including applications and appeals last year in addition to a backlog of 73 cases from 2020.
From the 1 728 total cases that came before the High Court, 1 666 cases were completed by the end of the last year, leaving 62 for this year.
The same court also received 2 466 criminal cases last year against a backlog of 124 cases, making the total 2 590.
The judges concluded 2 559 cases, leaving 31 incomplete cases.
“The disruptions meant that we lost almost six months of court operations as nothing was happening in the courts except for new cases and urgent matters.
“As demonstrated later, Covid-19 impacted negatively on the operations of the courts and in some instances we saw the backlog of cases rising in some courts,” said Justice Gwaunza.
She said the backlog was the reason the JSC should consider digitising the courts to mitigate the challenges presented by the global pandemic.
“For more than six months of the year, the courts were offering very limited services to litigants and the public and even for those limited services, members of the public did not have access to the courts.
“Such limitations in court operations resulted in fewer cases being finalised as compared to the last two years and in certain instances, the backlog of cases would unavoidably rise.”
Justice Gwaunza said a majority of the JSC members are now fully vaccinated.
Despite Covid-19 related challenges, Justice Gwaunza said the JSC had also suffered a high staff turnover because of low salaries.
Last year, 88 JSC members of staff resigned, 18 being magistrates.
She said the main cause of resignations is poor remuneration and it’s important that they are paid well to keeps them motivated.
“We sincerely acknowledge steps that the Government has faithfully taken in ensuring the improvement of the working conditions of members of the Judicial Service.
However, the abruptly changing economic conditions have continued to dilute the positive steps taken by the Government in this regard, thus necessitating advertisement to the challenge of poor working conditions again in this address,” she said. —