Department of Justice rejigs budget, swells ICT allocation

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 24 Jul 2020
Justice and constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola.
Justice and constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola.

The continuing impact of COVID-19 has pushed the Department of Justice and Correctional Services to augment its information technology and modernisation budget to R663 million from R529 million, a move that will help gender-based violence victims apply for protection orders online.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola announced yesterday that a further R668 million will be added to the planned expenditure on the integrated justice system programme, with R64 million allocated to routine maintenance of courts and R24.4 million will go towards upgrading the justice infrastructure.

The news comes as SA reached a milestone last week by undertaking its first fully paperless case trial simulation. All parties in court were able to use their own laptops and/or mobile tablets to access and refer to digital versions of case materials.

“We completed the digital case bundle pilot at Johannesburg High Court and Pretoria High Court, which was successful, and we operationalised it at both these two sites. The project has established a centralised court e-filing helpdesk to provide support to both internal stakeholders (judges and court officials) and external stakeholders (legal practitioners),” explains Lamola.

In his budget vote policy statement for 2020/21, Lamola says the departmental focus and impetus on modernisation, digitisation as well as business continuity challenges during the COVID-19 period necessitated the revision of the budget.

“COVID-19 has laid bare missed opportunities over the past couple of years to modernise our justice system in order to have a direct bearing on how people, particularly of working class communities, can access the system,” says Lamola.

The dreaded COVID-19 has brought most of the country to a halt as strict lockdown measures have been enforced to stop the spread of the deadly virus, which has also affected how justice is dispensed in SA.

To this end, Lamola says, the Domestic Violence Bill will introduce modernisation “in a radical form”.

“If passed, our Domestic Violence Bill will make it possible for one to apply for a protection order online. This will be a leap forward in the fight against gender-based violence and femicide. This is the first of several reforms we want to introduce. For instance, there is no reason why uncontested divorce applications and maintenance applications cannot be done online,” he says.

“Our nation can truly benefit from a modernised and integrated justice system. In the previous financial year, we managed to roll out the Person Identification and Verification Application system which is located in South African Police Service stations. It enables the identity of arrested individuals to be verified using their fingerprints and checked against the Department of Home Affairs records.

“More than 227 098 accused persons have been verified via this system and over 135 968 of these individuals (60%) had prior criminal records that could be referenced. Further, 6 205 (2.3%) wanted persons could be identified and linked to SAPS circulations as persons of interest for other cases.”

According to the minister, this timeous information is assisting “SAPS and NPA during the subsequent management of accused persons and provides data to assist bail considerations. As at March 2020, the South African Social Security Services had verified 154 974 beneficiaries.”

Lamola says in the current financial year, his department will focus on increasing user-ability, training and expanding this system across the country.

He emphasised the criminal justice system requires significant reforms.

“We will be initiating the process of reforming the Criminal Procedure Act this financial year to address some of the systemic challenges and modernisation of the Act.”

Turning to the maintenance payment system Moja, Lamola says it had some challenges for a couple of months but these had been resolved.

Moja means “everything is in order” and MojaPay was adopted as a smart system, according to the Department of Justice's Web site, promising a quicker and seamless turnaround of receipts and payments.

“The system has been restored to full functionality and backlog payments are being addressed. We have enlisted the CSIR to assist and conduct a forensic investigation to establish what caused failures in the system. If it is found that there was a human intervention in the failure, rest assured that implicated individuals will not be spared accountability,” says Lamola.