MASERU – Chief Justice Sakoane Sakoane has warned Court of Appeal President Justice Kananelo Mosito to ensure there is never a time the Apex court should fail to sit and hear urgent appeal cases because of the absence of expatriate judges assigned to that court. Justice Sakoane says the constitution recognises High Court Judges as ex officio members of the Appeal Court and “thus there cannot be any reason for the Court of Appeal not to sit to hear urgent appeals if expatriate Judges are not available.”
Judge Sakonae made the remarks this week at the official opening of the High Court to mark the beginning of the 2024 judicial year. He noted that while in the 2023 legal year two High Court Judges were assigned to assist the Apex Court at the request of the president, their deployment ought to happen all the time. “The assigning of High Court Judges to sit in the Court of Appeal is a thing that should be done during all court sessions of the Appeal Court…”
The Appeal Court holds only two court sessions within a judicial calendar; one in April and the other in October. Its president, Justice Mosito sits with five other foreign judges and occasionally invites High Court judges. Justice Sakoane maintains that High Court judges must sit in the Appeal Court every session. The Chief Justice said the court (Appeal Court) had a record high number of cases in the 2023 judicial year where eighty seven (87) cases were enrolled. All courts, he said had to deal with the huge volume of work that has grown exponentially.
The increased load of constitutional cases, he said, has resulted in delays in finalising other cases as these interrupt hearing of other cases, brought about by the fact that constitutional cases require a panel of three judges to sit and determine a matter.
“The obvious solution is to do away with the mandatory three-judge rule that was imposed by the Court Appeal in the past years,” he added.
Justice Sakoane says Lesotho is a small country with few judges therefore it cannot afford the luxury of constitutional cases always having to be heard by a panel of three judges. The top judge also expressed concern over the output of criminal cases which he said is low. Reasons attributed to the low output, he said, include the fact that only three judges are assigned to a criminal session, worsened by unavailability of crown witnesses as well as lawyers who double book appearances.
The cyber-attack on the court’s recording system also contributed to the low output in criminal cases. “It is for this reasons that criminal cases were not disposed at the rate required,” he said. However, Judge Sakoane says there are statutory rules which have to be put in place in order to arrest problems of delays in expedition of criminal trials which include requiring defence to disclose its defence at the beginning of the trial just like prosecution.
“This state of affairs must be attended to by law makers,” In terms of the statistics, 1 261 civil cases were brought forward from the 2022 legal year into 2023 while 1 440 were recorded, totaling 2701. Of the total, 1 789 were completed recording a 66 percent disposal rate.
Up to 472 criminal cases were brought forward from 2022, while 406 new criminal cases were registered in 2023 totalling 878. A 46 percent disposal rate was therefore recorded as 408 cases were completed. The Labour Court is said to have had 152 trials with 55 of those having been completed as 15 are pending, while 77 are part-heard with five are yet to be heard. The Labour Court also had 195 review applications, completed 78, with 25 awaiting judgments, and 81 are part-heard, while 11 are still pending. On top of that, there were 170 enforcement application filed of which 99 were completed. None were pending judgments, with 51 part-heard and 30 pending judgments. Justice Sakoane also presented the performance of the Magistrates’ Court. The central division of the Magistracy had 3 132 civil cases enrolled after 1 697 had been brought forward from 2022. Up to 2085 cases were completed and a 43 percent disposal rate was registered.
However, a mere 26 percent disposal rate was registered as far as criminal cases were concerned. A total of 2 414 had been brought forward from 2022 and 2 705 new cases registered in 2023 with only 1 326 being disposed. The northern region recorded a 37 percent disposal rate of civil matters as 3 439 cases were brought forward from 2022. A total of 2 717 were completed as 3 813 new ones were enrolled.
As far as criminal cases are concerned, there was a 48 percent disposal rate in the Northern region of the magistrates with 264 cases brought forward from 2022, while 465 cases were recorded in 2023 and 467 completed.
In the South, there was a 58 percent disposal rate of civil cases and 37 percent of criminal cases. Up to 361 civil cases were brought forward from 2022 and 766 were enrolled in the new year with 653 being completed at the end of the year. A total of 730 criminal cases were brought forward from 2022 and 909 were registered later in 2023 with 603 finalised at the end of the legal year.