I recently read a chapter from a book called Roots for Radicals: Organise for Power, Action and Justice by Edward T. Chambers and once again it struck me that change is a strange thing. This book reminded me that at its core change is disruptive, unruly and often quite troublesome. It requires us to do things that disrupt the peace that we all crave. But if we envision a world that looks different from the world that we live in now, one with a criminal justice system that supports survivors, we need to make peace with disruptive change. The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign (RSJC) constantly works to achieve such change.
In a previous blogpost “Small Victories, Big Change” I spoke about our engagements with Parliament on the legislative framework for sexual offences courts and Parliament’s work to define this.
As a result of our first meeting with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services, we met with the Deputy Minister of Justice and seven Regional Court Presidents (RCPs) representing magistrates on a provincial level. This meeting provided us with the opportunity to hear the very real and practical concerns that magistrates have with the current wording of the legislative framework, which just provides for exclusive sexual offences courts. Most of the concerns they had were about maximising the use of courtrooms and maximising court time because of the large backlog in unheard cases they face and how they want to catch up. We discussed the possibility of exclusive court rolls (meaning that magistrates will exclusively hear sexual offences cases for the duration of the sexual offences court roll) which would address these concerns but we couldn’t reach an agreement.
Although they put a great deal of pressure on us to support the removal of the exclusivity provision. We asked for time to confer and spent an anxious ten minutes in the corridor outside the bathroom debating a compromise in a short, fierce argument that left us in complete agreement. When we returned to the room we explained that we were there to represent and protect the interests of rape survivors and therefore cannot agree to a legislative framework that will inevitably give rise to long delays in rape cases being heard in court or rape cases being heard in courts that lack the necessary personal, services and facilities. These words were greeted by an icy pause but we stuck to our position, uncomfortable as it was to face such an intimidating group of people; people we needed on our side. At the end of the meeting we were asked to suggest new wording of the legislative framework for consideration by the Department of Justice.
We had two days to draft new suggested wording for the section of the Bill, which addressed the concerns raised by the RCPs and protected the interests of survivors and the exclusivity of sexual offences courts. This was accepted by the Department of Justice (with minor adjustments) and has been referred to the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces to be passed. Once the President has signed off on this Bill then for the first time ever, sexual offences courts will be defined in legislation. We are closer than ever to seeing the legislation providing for these courts operationalised with wording that is supported by the Department of Justice and the RCPs.