June 10, 2004

Apartheid debt hobbles court system

The justice department is struggling to rid itself of apartheid debt that is recorded in its books as an asset by the national treasury and is affecting its service delivery, the department's chief financial officer, Alan Mackenzie, said. Mackenzie told Parliament's justice committee that the debt could be written off only against forced savings made by the department. This had been agreed between the department and the national treasury. It means that court services are substantially under funded, and will remain so while the forced savings are made to write off old-order debt. He also reported that the personnel budget of the department was not sound, and that court services were under funded in the 2003-04 financial year to the tune of R336m, or 26%. "This under funding was financed by curtailing other expenditure and by not filling vacancies. The need to cross-subsidise core business by effecting forced savings to fund the personnel budget shortfall at a court level together with the need to fund the legacy debt write-offs is of deep concern to the department," Mackenzie said.

The management of monies in trust was a critical matter. The department of justice was unable to determine the extent to which it was indebted to the public. In the apartheid era, courts acted as agencies, and child maintenance payments were made to a court and then held in trust until collected. "The manual records maintained at a court level have not been reconciled for many years and, notwithstanding the significant improvement in current record-keeping practices, the opening balances remain, at best, suspect," Mackenzie said. The plan to place all courts on an electronic banking system by April 2005 was on track and tenders would be invited soon. It involved a public-private partnership with commercial banks or retail outlets so that maintenance monies could be drawn and paid electronically at venues other than courts. "It is envisaged that all maintenance and non court-bound transactions can be removed from the cash halls," Mackenzie said, adding that 66% of all monies in trust transactions were maintenance payments. (Business Day, Johannesburg)

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