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Concern as city magistrate’s court is reopened

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Legal practitioners and Department of Justice staff members are fearing for their health and safety as the Kimberley Magistrate’s Court was re-opened.

LEGAL practitioners and staff members employed by the Department of Justice fear for their health and safety, as the Kimberley Magistrate’s Court is “operating as normal” after the building was closed on Monday when a police officer tested positive for Covid-19. 

The spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, Chrispin Phiri, said that the Kimberley Magistrate’s Court had only assisted with urgent matters on Monday. “Screening and testing was concluded at around 5.30pm. The court was decontaminated overnight,” he added.

Phiri said that the building was made accessible from 8.30am on Tuesday morning, after advice was obtained from health practitioners.

Attorney Leanne Sullaphen, from LK Sullaphen and Associates, pointed out that all staff inside the building should have been placed in isolation and the entire building closed, until a certificate of safety was issued.

“Private attorneys and state prosecutors have no choice but to enter the building or face being held in contempt of court. Postponements and urgent matters are proceeding in the same courtroom that was evacuated on Monday,” said Sullaphen.

She added that the legal fraternity was not informed that the building had been contaminated.

“No attempt was made to trace persons who may have been in contact with the police officer in the past week or to subject them to testing. Those of us with pre-existing medical conditions are extremely stressed about our health. Many of us are worried that we have placed our children and family members in danger by unknowingly being exposed to the virus. There are staff who are still breastfeeding their babies.” 

She indicated that staff members including transcribers, clerks, prosecutors and magistrates were back on duty on Tuesday, although they were still waiting for their test results.  

“Anyone, including persons who may have been exposed to infected persons, is allowed to enter the court building, while social distancing and the compulsory wearing of masks is not being observed.” 

The chairperson of the Northern Cape Civics Organisation, Ross Henderson, stated that in the absence of any guarantees, the Department of Justice should be held responsible if any person became infected with Covid-19 inside the building. 

“We are not impressed at how the safety of staff, community members and the legal fraternity has been compromised. The department can face class action as safety regulations should apply to all institutions where persons who were in contact with the police officer should be placed in quarantine and the building sealed. The courts are utilised by a vast number of public members,” said Henderson.

He was not convinced that the entire building could have been effectively decontaminated overnight. 

“We are in the process of compiling a list of complaints to the national command council regarding contravention of the Disaster Management Act regulations in the Northern Cape. The civics have been inundated with calls from legal practitioners regarding the guidelines that are not being adhered to.”    

National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union regional secretary Moleme Moleme said they would meet with court management this week to discuss concerns raised by its members.

“The employer indicated that affected areas of the building were deep-cleaned and decontaminated overnight and that workers were screened and tested. It was stated that those who came into contact with the infected person have been isolated,” said Moleme.

He added that the majority of state departments are not ready to resume work. 

“We have been monitoring compliance and are calling upon employers to adhere to regulations as stipulated. Workers are expected to work without proper systems in place including daily screening, provision of masks and hand sanitisers. Workplaces must be deep-cleaned and disinfected to ensure a safe working environment.” 

He stated that workplaces had to establish occupational health and safety committees where labour organisations needed to be represented. 

“We call on all employers to be practical and sensible in ensuring we all adhere to regulations.”