Chaotic record-keeping in the North and South Gauteng High Courts -- the country's busiest -- seriously impede the public's access to information.
Court files go missing, apparently owing to theft in some instances and carelessness in others.
Incorrect numbering and insufficient labelling of names in some cases muddle the system.
And, in sensitive cases, files appear to have been removed from their folders and therefore withheld from members of the public and the media.
The number of cases in the country's busiest court, South Gauteng, has nearly doubled over the past three years -- from 35 000 in 2007 to about 65 000 in 2010 -- but the number of administrative staff has not kept pace.
In an interview for a position at the South Gauteng High Court in April this year, then senior counsel, now Judge Sharise Weiner, told the Judicial Services Commission that conditions at the court were "uninhabitable". She pointed to missing court files as a serious problem.
"When I acted on the last occasion, there was a roll of 90 matters in the unopposed motion court and I think there were about 20 files that had gone missing,” she reportedly told the panel.
A year ago, Judge Kathy Satchwell mentioned the issue of missing court files in a Business Day article describing the appalling conditions at the court, including "archives where records lie in no particular order on shelves and sometimes on the floor; a registrar's office where we are daily advised that court files containing pleadings are 'missing'".
She also complained that there was "inadequate and outdated computer technology".
A plan to digitise court files is being implemented, according to justice and constitutional department spokesperson Tlali Tlali, but it is in its infancy at both courts. The project for both courts is worth R42-million.
A scanning system has begun with the emailing of bulk documents -- but only to attorneys. A senior member of the South Gauteng High Court registrar's office told the Mail & Guardian: "Please bear with us while we try and get this scanning process to work properly."
In response to questions about the chaotic filing system and missing documents, Tlali said the workload of the South Gauteng High Court had increased substantially: "In 2007, the turnover was about 35 000 files, in 2010, the turnover was at least 58 000 files.”
A member of the South Gauteng High Court's administrative staff who has to fetch files for court cases told the M&G: "Files just go missing mysteriously. Motion court rolls are supposed to be numerical. My understanding of a numerical roll is that when it starts at one, then the next number is two, then three, and so on till the end. Not here [at this court].
"Here, you start at any number then end at any other number. Parties are incorrectly cited and case numbers are more often than not wrongly typed on the roll. It's usually better to totally ignore the roll and type and number your own roll. Dockets and files go missing and no one says a word."
To fulfil their watchdog role in society, researchers, nongovernmental organisations, members of the public and journalists need access to court records, such as civil and criminal documents, or title deeds, bonds and antenuptial contracts as recorded by the deeds office.
The Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 gives the public the right to access public information.
Public records are available to different degrees in different democracies. In the United States, court documents are online, ensuring easier access for the public.
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (Pacer) is an electronic public access service that allows the American public to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts.
A public access fee is charged at US8c a page.
There are about one million Pacer users, including attorneys, government agencies, researchers, financial institutions, the media and the general public.
In South Africa, as the justice department plods towards an electronic access system, investigative reporters continue their uphill battle to access documents.
Amabhungane investigative reporter Heidi Swart (see sidebar) has been trying to access documents regarding the application by the public works department to cancel the Pretoria police lease with property developer Roux Shabangu for the past two months.
She visited the North Gauteng High Court on three separate occasions -- September 22, and 28 and October 18 -- and left empty-handed.
Senior registrar at the North Gauteng High Court Dave Pietersen responded to her story, saying the file in question was not available to the public at that time as the matter had not yet appeared in court.
"The fact that the file was empty might have been [as a result of the fact] that one of the parties had lifted the contents of the court file for various reasons, which they are entitled to do," he said.
I arrive at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria just before the court archives close for the day at 1pm. About 10 people queue at the counter.
I fill in a form with case particulars: case number 52530/2011, an application by the department of public works to cancel a lease with Roux Shabangu. I reach the front after about 20 minutes. A friendly woman takes the form, disappears and returns. It isn't there. There's no file with that number.
I had tried calling the court earlier to make sure that the papers would be there. But archive staff told me that I had to come there in person if I wanted the file. They could not tell me if it was there.
I try again about a week later. This time, I'm sure that the state attorney's office has filed the papers as I phoned them to check. At the archives, about 30 people are queuing. I fill in another form. A friendly staff member comes to me in the queue and takes my form. He promptly returns with the file. I'm delighted. But then I realise it's empty. He says he does not know where the papers are and refers me to the help desk.
It's illegal to leave the court building with court papers. But I have to go outside to reach the help desk. That's just the way the building is set up. However, the file is empty, so it should be fine.
I exit the building with the file. I am neither stopped nor searched. I enter the building again and go through all the security checks. The file remains undiscovered.
The woman at the help desk looks blankly at the empty file and asks me whether the case has appeared in court yet. "I don't know," I say.
Well, in that case, she cannot help me, she says. There is no way for her to find out where these papers are. I ask her whether there is a number I can phone in future to prevent futile trips. She informs me that there is not.
I dump the empty file on a stack of other files lying unguarded on the counter at the archives.
Take three. This time, my boss, [Amabhungane managing partner] Sam Sole, has phoned Judge President Bernard Ngoepe. Ngoepe has sent an email to the senior court registrar, Dave Pietersen, to fix the problem, lest the public gain the impression that the court is sitting on information that should be available to all.
I make sure I phone Pietersen before I go to court once again. I am hoping that he will agree to keep the file at his office.
Pietersen tells me in no uncertain terms that he has seen the judge president's email but that the folder I am looking for is not a priority for him. I realise that he will not assist me.
This does not bode well. However, I am desperate to get the file, so I head back to court, hoping to find it in the archives.
Again, I grab a form and fall into line at the archive. A man calls some of us to the back into the archive room. Amid swearing and sweating, the man scratches through rows of files. There is a rough numerical order to the files but it is not an exact science. He sends me back outside. When he resurfaces he hands me my form, along with a similar form.
"Your file is not here. Call these people. They took it last."
I look at the second form. I don't know who 'Jolandi” is, but I am relieved to have a name and a number.
Then I realise that Jolandi may have returned the file by now. Which would mean it could be anywhere in the twilight zone between her office and the court archives.
Looking for the registrar's office, I get lost. I knock on an open door. The man at the desk seems annoyed. I explain. He says there are two other offices that may have the file. "Would you just come and have a look at this?" he asks, pointing at his computer screen. I fix his MS Word table.
Delighted, he finally makes eye contact. He advises me that I should be persistent when I go to those two offices because sometimes they just don't feel like helping.
Just then I notice that the man at the archives was mistaken. Jolandi doesn't have my file after all. The file she requested has a different case number. I give up. There's always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. -- Heidi Swart
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.
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