Automatic review of magistrates’ courts judgments: A noble invention at the risk of impotence?

Authors: Clement Marumoagae and Boyane Tshehla

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: LLB LLM PhD AIPSA Diploma in Insolvency Law, Professor, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand; B Proc LLM, Senior Lecturer, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 3, 2023, p. 406 – 428


The Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 provides for the automatic review of certain cases decided in the magistrates’ courts. This is a mechanism aimed at ensuring that justice is properly administered by subjecting decisions of some magistrates, mainly determined on the basis of their experience and the length of the sentence imposed, to review by judges of the High Court. This system, however, has been systematically hamstrung, primarily due to the inordinate delays that take place between the imposition of the sentence and the delivery of the review judgment. In some cases, by the time the review judgment is delivered, the accused has already completed the sentence.
The discussion in this article focuses on the automatic review process. It starts by contextualising the automatic review system; then deals with its practical application through the lens of a few selected cases; and — in conclusion — makes some recommendations aimed at strengthening the system. The recommendations are interrelated. The main one is that the period of a week for the record to be submitted for review is unrealistic — as is evident from the cases discussed — and should therefore be increased. Conscious that this may delay the process to the disadvantage of the accused, it is also recommended that those accused whose cases are subjected to the automatic review process should be granted bail as a default position. The last recommendation may seem cosmetic, but it is important. Communication between the magistrates’ courts and the High Court seems to be at the centre of the problem and, for this reason, the use of technology is recommended.