Let’s launch the Rocket Docket

Publication June 13, 2016

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has continued to uphold a proud record for eight years. It has the fastest trial docket in the USA. The median time for getting a matter to trial from the time summons is issued is only 15.1 months. Remarkably this includes class actions and patent cases which are notoriously slow to get to trial. By comparison the median period for New York courts is nearly 40 months.

This is real access to justice and something we should be aiming for.

The well-known bread cartel case began with information received by the Competition Commission in December 2006 of an alleged cartel operating in the Western Cape. Members of the cartel have been fined substantial amounts but a class action on behalf of consumers is nowhere near trial. The events at Marikana took place in August 2012. The Commission of Inquiry eventually reported in June 2015 and we have yet to hear that any dependent of the deceased has been paid compensation. Surviving children of those killed in the event have had four years without any loss of support damages to get them through their schooling and their youth.

The fault does not only lie in the court system. There are slow acting lawyers and slow acting clients and people without means to pursue their claims. There are also hopeless causes that clog up the courts. A recent claim by the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces seeking an apology for something said in Parliament ended in the Supreme Court of Appeal after two years. The litigant was reminded that a speech in Parliament is political speech that has been protected since the 1600’s. Then are those for whom delay is wanted. A company recently resisted the efforts of an investigative journalist to get access to its share register for nearly three years only to be reminded (if they needed reminding) that access is specifically allowed by the Companies Act.

The problem is not only in the courts. The Consumer Protection Act came into force in March 2011. The Consumer Commission was inundated with thousands of complaints by consumers who thought they finally had an inexpensive means of redress. The Commission proved to be under-funded and thousands of frustrated consumers lost confidence in the process which has only recently got back on track. But the hype has been lost. Consumers who were promised personal data protection before the 2010 World Cup are still waiting. The inordinate delay in land claims and service delivery are leading to social unrest. There are ancient writings to the effect that the sword comes into the world when justice is delayed or denied.

Delayed justice is not access to justice. The Bill of Rights gives us the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by law decided in a fair public hearing before a court or other independent tribunal. It is a pity that the Bill does not offer us a “fair and as fast as possible” public hearing.

We all need to make an extra effort to move at the speed of the digital age in providing justice. This involves litigants, courts and lawyers in equal measure. When a matter is ready for legal action all three need to make up the crew of the Rocket Docket.

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