Covid-19: Durban high court closes amid row between advocates and chief justice

17 June 2020 - 12:22 By Tania Broughton
The Durban high court closed on Wednesday after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. Initially, it was decided to move court functions temporarily but some administrative staff were not happy with that.
The Durban high court closed on Wednesday after an employee tested positive for Covid-19. Initially, it was decided to move court functions temporarily but some administrative staff were not happy with that.
Image: 123RF/skycinema

The Durban high court has been closed until further notice after an administrative staff member tested positive for Covid-19.

The entire court building was being decontaminated and cleaned on Wednesday. Initially legal practitioners were informed that courts would remain open and the general office would relocate from an outside building to one inside the main building.

But, sources said, administrative staff were not happy about this and a decision was taken to shut shop completely.

One of the urgent matters affected by the decision was the DA’s urgent application in which it is seeking an order for the rehearing of the eThekwini municipality’s virtual budget approval meeting after its leader Nicole Graham was continuously muted while attempting to give her presentation.

While some courts and judges have embraced technology and the use of Zoom to hear cases, others have not.

This was raised recently by the General Council of the Bar (GCB) which, in a letter to chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and judge presidents, complained that judges claimed they did not have government-issued laptops with webcams.

GCB chair Craig Watt-Pringle cited several issues in getting access to high courts since the lockdown and said there were huge disparities on how divisions were functioning.

“Many judges complain that they do not have government-issue laptops with webcams. Some are prepared to use their private computer hardware to facilitate hearings, while others refuse to do so. Some are prepared to accept assistance from the attorneys for the parties acting jointly (for example in the form of a loan laptop for the duration of the virtual hearing) while others are not,” he said.

“Our primary concern is the impact this has on access to justice and the rule of law. At a time when civil liberties have been significantly curtailed and enterprises of all sectors of the economy are facing ruin, a functioning judicial system is essential.”

In response, the chief justice leapt to the defence of his colleagues and said there was no reason for a meeting, as proposed by the GCB.

“While I appreciate the magnitude and implications of the challenges or frustrations, that still doesn’t remove the need to be measured in expressing your genuine concerns. My colleagues deserve better than to have it said of them that they have ‘adopted what can at best be described, with respect, as a supine, if not obstructive approach’.

“Similarly, it offends one’s sense of courtesy to read that what the judge presidents have done is now being characterised as ‘less thought through’.”

He said platforms existed to resolve, with speed, access to justice and case management issues and it had always been open to the profession to approach the judge presidents to resolve any matter of concern.

There was no suggestion that they had refused to consult regarding practice directives.

OCJ spokesperson Nathi Mncube said: "We expect the decontamination and deep cleaning of affected areas to commence and complete today and if it all goes well court should resume with its business tomorrow [Thursday]."


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