Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has ordered that alleged perpetrators of petty crimes be released from police holding cells countrywide and warned to appear in court on a future date.
The order is in line with one of many new regulations relating to court cases and prisons that Lamola gazetted on Tuesday.
He did not specify what the petty crimes were.
South Africa is under lockdown until 16 April to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Police officials and prosecutors must, where necessary, fix bail in terms of sections 59(1) and 59A(1) of the Criminal Procedure Act and, where necessary, release an accused person on warning,” Lamola ordered.
In terms of the new regulations, all criminal trials must be postponed until after the lockdown, except for trials where the “interests of justice dictate otherwise or where special arrangements have been made with the judicial officers involved in the matter”.
Lamola also said no awaiting trial detainees in correctional centres and police holding cells may be brought to any court or court precinct, unless for a first appearance, a bail application or where special arrangements were made with judicial officers.
In addition, all criminal court cases where the accused are not incarcerated may not be placed on the court roll during the lockdown. New trial dates will be issued, the provisions state.
Lamola said that, after consultation with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, he issued the new directives to address, prevent and combat the spread of Covid-19 in all courts, court precincts and justice service points in South Africa.
Restricted access to the court, court precinct and all justice service points
In terms of access to courts, Lamola said: “Only persons with a material interest in a case such as litigants, the accused, witnesses, and persons accompanying, or persons who may be needed to provide support such as those accompanying children, victims of domestic violence or sexually abused persons and persons with disabilities, family members, and members of the media will be permitted to enter the court precinct, provided that the judicial officer concerned must order that the number of persons in a room be reduced to comply with safety measures and social distancing requirements.”
Entry into the courts and court precincts may only be allowed for urgent and essential matters, Lamola said.
Read: Coronavirus: Law society sounds alarm over the slow pace of sanitising courts, prisons
Also, anyone who entered the country a week before, during or after the declaration of the national state of disaster, may not be allowed to enter a courtroom, court precinct or justice service point during the state of disaster, unless the matter is urgent or essential, and the person has been screened and tests negative for Covid-19
Any person who has been in contact with or exposed to persons from high-risk countries may also not be allowed to enter a court, a court precinct or a justice service point during the national state of disaster.
Postponement of criminal cases
All criminal trials enrolled during the lockdown must be postponed to dates after the lockdown, Lamola said, except for trials where the interests of justice dictate otherwise or where special arrangements have been made with the judicial officers involved in the matter.
Lamola also said personal distancing must be practised at all times, should cases proceed as scheduled under the new provisions.
Civil cases that are not identified as urgent and essential services may not be placed on the court roll for the duration of the period of lockdown.
“However, heads of court retain the discretion to authorise the hearing of matters through teleconference or video conference or any other electronic mode, which dispenses with the necessity to be physically present in a courtroom,” Lamola said.
Following the publication of the provisions, Lamola issued a statement to elaborate on the most important provisions.
“As part of government’s measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, essential justice services will be available at courts only between 10:00 and 13:00 daily during the national lockdown period,” the statement read.
Family law, protection orders
“Family law services will only attend to urgent applications in respect of matters referred to the Family Advocate by the court with urgent applications.
“Applications for protection orders will still be addressed, as will enforcement orders,” Lamola said.
“The offices of the Master of the High Court will attend to urgent appointments in terms of deceased estates as well as curatorship.
“Criminal courts will be open to preside over bail hearings and first applications. Matters on the court roll will be rescheduled and members of the public will be informed of new dates for court appearances.
“Audio-visual remand technology at correctional centres will be used as widely as possible to mitigate the need for persons in custody to appear in court.
“Persons whose matters are on the court rolls and not urgent should therefore, for purposes of the lockdown, stay home and not attend to the courthouses until after the lockdown. The courts will also ensure that they are advised of the new dates to which their matters were postponed.
The department encouraged members of the public to adhere to the regulations, issued in terms of the Disaster Management Act.
“While every effort is being made to ensure that South Africans can access essential justice services, we urge members of the public to work with us to adhere to the lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus,” said Lamola.
SEE THE NEW REGULATIONS IN FULL HERE: