Justice stalls as payment dispute rages on

07 August 2017 - 06:00 By JEFF WICKS and Philani Nombembe
Image: Thinkstock

Six million court documents, including divorce orders and marriage certificates, are being "held hostage" in an R84-million dispute between the company storing them and the Department of Justice.

Last week the Pretoria High Court ordered Docufile to hand over the 6 mil files to the department, but the handover is expected to take months, given the sheer volume of documents.

Lawyers for Mmela Investment Holdings, which owns Docufile, said it planned to appeal the ruling.

The Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town High Courts as well as the Johannesburg and Durban Magistrate's Courts are all affected by this dispute.

Judge Cynthia Pretorius's judgment reads: "Original marriage certificates, divorce orders and settlement agreements cannot be accessed. All files from 1987 to 2010 are inaccessible, as well as some files from 2010 to 2015, which are stored off site.

It is unconscionable that the public has to suffer.
Judge Cynthia Pretorius

"There is a list of pending requests for court files and a letter from an attorney complaining that the attorneys cannot obtain divorce orders, as requested by their clients, because of the impasse reached between the department and [Mmela]."

The trouble started after Docufile's six- year storage contract ended in October 2016. Mmela refused to hand over the files, including hard drives and passwords, until the department paid more than R84-million in "retrieval costs".

Meanwhile, the department is still paying Docufile R560000 a month and Metrofile cannot take over the contract.

The department said the server at the Pretoria High Court crashed last October and as a result electronic files cannot be accessed. Mmela refuses to provide the passwords.

Said Pretorius: "It is unconscionable that the public has to suffer. Mmela's actions force the department to continue to pay for storage and to uphold a relationship with [it] in an artificial manner."

She said: "Such an action could lead to litigation that might proceed for years. Each day this state of affairs continues, members of the public are prejudiced as they do not have access to final divorce orders for pension payouts, remarriage, transfers of property and criminal records to enable persons to lodge appeals.

"The respondent [Mmela] cannot, in effect, extend the Service Level Agreement, by holding the department, and the public, hostage by refusing to hand over the 6 million."

She ordered the company to hand over the documents to the department within five days and pay legal costs. But Mmela's lawyer, Barnabas Xulu, said the instruction was "practically impossible".

"We would be throwing the entire justice system into chaos if the department loads the documents onto trucks and transports them to whatever venue they choose. We have very strong instructions to appeal."