Fair trial rights, pre-trial civil motions in pending criminal cases and abuse of court process with reference to the Free State asbestos pre-trial motion proceedings
Author: CF Swanepoel
Affiliations: BA LLB (Stellenbosch) LLM LLD (University of the Free State), Research Associate, Department of Public Law, University of the Free State
Source: South African Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 36 Issue 1, p. 24 – 41
South Africans have become accustomed to almost daily news reports of litigation in our courts that involve politically powerful and well-connected individuals. The perception by the public is that in many instances litigants approach the courts for other reasons than achieving justice and are therefore misusing our courts and its processes.1 This becomes a matter of concern when such perceptions affect the trust and confidence that the public holds in respect of the judicial system and the rule of law. The recent Free State asbestos pre-trial motion proceedings illustrate some of these concerns. This article first comments on the judgment of the Free State high court in this matter, and focusses on the unmeritorious aspects of the applications made. These aspects included a claim that the applicants’ right to a fair trial were infringed, and the applicants’ disregard for the established principle against preliminary civil motions emanating from criminal proceedings. Legal practitioners advise their clients and must do so responsibly. For that reason, the second part of the article comments on the professional rules of conduct against the abuse of the court process in relation to legal practitioners’ obligations to both their clients and the court. This duty includes not to litigate causes or raise defences that have little chance of success or where they are initiated by litigants for purposes other than achieving justice. Improper purposes include delaying the proceedings to escape criminal liability and ultimately, accountability. In order to curb pre-trial litigation in any court other than the criminal trial court, the article proposes an extension of the Criminal Procedure Act to clarify when such other court may be approached for relief. It also proposes that a certificate of probable cause accompanies all pre-trial motions that emanate from criminal proceedings in a court other than the trial court.