Law and disorder: Judges and advocates under siege at high court
The Johannesburg Bar has threatened legal action if the justice department does not improve security at the court
Johannesburg lawyers and judges are under siege by armed thugs operating in and around the city’s high court precinct.
Criminals have, since the beginning of December, attacked three advocates leaving the courthouse.
Now, fed up with the lack of action to ensure the safety of those working around the precinct, lawyers are threatening legal action unless something is done to improve security around the courthouse. In one of the latest incidents protesters attacked and assaulted an advocate in the lifts of the courthouse on December 5.
The attack on the advocate, who has asked for her identity to be protected, began at the entrance to the courthouse after an altercation broke out at the security checkpoint.
The lawyer’s colleague, who also asked not to be identified, said the attackers forced their way past security and chased the woman into the lift where they assaulted her.
“It was vicious. She had to be rescued by a colleague,” said a senior advocate.
The lawyer said it was just one of many violent attacks that had occurred both inside the courthouse and within the building’s precinct.
“The level of security is pathetic, with no one seemingly able to stop these attacks. It’s not just attacks on legal staff within the building. Crimes are also occurring against people driving and walking out of the building,” he said.
Advocate Gig Meyer said that in the past two months three judges had been robbed on their way to and from court.
“I have been the victim of three attempted hijackings in the past six months. Three months ago an attorney was robbed at gunpoint on the main stairs in front of the court.
“It’s not only court staff being attacked, but also the public coming to court. It’s an open season for anyone in the precinct.”
Roanne Bramdaw, the courthouse acting registrar, said that as she drove from work in August three men tried to hijack her within a 100m of the courthouse.
“As I drove out of the court building and stopped at the robot, the men surrounded my car. One of them had a gun and was trying to open my door. The others were trying to force the other doors open and stop me from driving off.
“I was fortunate that I was not hurt when I managed to drive off.”
She said crime had become worse since 2017.
“Five years ago it was never this bad with theft from someone’s car the worst thing that happened. Now it’s muggings, robberies and hijackings.”
Advocate Charlene Britz said she was leaving her chambers opposite the high court in her car when she was attacked.
“It was bumper-to-bumper traffic. As I sat in traffic three men surrounded my car and attacked me. They tried to smash the window with a gun. I managed to drive forward and crashed into a car in front of me, which caused them to run off.
“The crime in the area is terrible. It’s literally occurring in every street around the courthouse.”
The attacks have become so bad that the Johannesburg Bar has written to the Gauteng judge president Dunstan Mlambo, demanding that action be taken.
A meeting is scheduled for Thursday between deputy justice minister John Jeffery, Mlambo and officials from the Johannesburg Bar.
The Bar said that in the latest incident, on December 5, an advocate had fallen victim to a vicious “racial attack”.
“The incident occurred in the foyer of the Johannesburg High Court and in the high court lift. The attackers were, immediately prior to the attack, engaged in a protest outside the court.
“The attack is part of a growing pattern of criminal activity perpetrated in and around the court precinct, which has seen practitioners and judges mugged and robbed. The Johannesburg Bar Council is considering a number of interventions, including litigation, to address the situation urgently.”
Nathi Mncube, spokesperson for the office of the chief justice, who referred questions to the department of justice, told Times Select they were aware of the issues.
Justice department spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga said the attacks had occurred between the chambers, where most advocates operated from, and the court building.
He said the department, which had contracted out security for the courthouse, was concerned about the attacks.
“A meeting between the deputy minister of justice, the Gauteng High Court judge president, senior department officials and the City of Johannesburg will take place on Thursday.”
The meeting would be used to discuss what steps needed to be taken to address the situation.