KwaZulu-Natal - KwaZulu-Natal civilian justices of the peace, including former police officers and retired magistrates, who may be sitting idle, should be trained by the Justice Department to help the police by taking confessions and issuing search warrants.
This is according to Subramani Reddy, a former police officer, who was appointed as a civilian justice of the peace in 1995.
Civilian justices of the peace can be appointed by the minister of justice to assist the courts and also have the power to take confessions from suspects and issue search warrants.
Reddy said he conducted an independent short research study earlier this year in which he spoke to 27 civilian justices of the peace in the province who said they were rarely called upon to help the police or magistrates.
In the study he found that of the 27 people he interviewed, only five had been called upon to take confessions.
Of the five, only one had performed this service more then once. None had ever been asked to issue a search warrant. Only four had ever been asked to help magistrates.
He said 25 of the 27 were willing to be trained. Reddy said the point of his study was to highlight that civilian justices were being underutilised.
“My main question is: What is the point of appointing civilian justices if they not going to be used? All the justices who were part of my research study are graduates who could be trained to perform functions to assist the police and magistrates. But now it seems it is just an honorary title,” said Reddy.
Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Johan Burger said there would be “a lot of merit” in training civilian justices.
“This would be a good idea provided they are properly trained and have some legal background because confessions can sometimes be highly technical and will be challenged in court.
“A whole court case can rest on the quality of that statement.”
Burger added that it was preferable that magistrates take confessions because there was always “suspicion” when police officers did them.
“Most police officers are fairly objective when they take statements, but there have been cases where policemen took confessions and it was kicked out of court.
“The problems arise because the defence can raise the perception that the officer has links to the case or the investigating officer. So it would be good to create a space for more objective statement-taking.”
Sociologist and KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said if civilian justices were used they would have to be subjected to rigorous public oversight.
“I would be nervous about giving them free rein because I think it could easily be open to abuse unless there are strict controls over their work.
“Some police officers already abuse the system and take confessions using brutal force, but at least these officers can be held accountable for this.” - The Mercury