The Justice Ministry says it is looking at the issue of whether people who sign admission of guilt fines should acquire criminal records.
Durban – The Justice Ministry says it is looking at the issue of whether people who sign admission of guilt fines should acquire criminal records.
The matter has come to the fore in recent weeks as people have been arrested and charged for flouting lockdown regulations.
Those who have been arrested have the option of paying an admission of guilt fine or pursuing the matter in court.
ACDP MP Steve Swart, who is also a member of Parliament’s justice and correctional services committee, said most would opt to pay the fine – without realising that they would get a criminal record.
He said according to police statistics released in April, 118000 people were charged during the initial lockdown period for breaching “irrational” regulations – some of which included where one can exercise, the imposition of a curfew and the products businesses could sell.
“Most people do not realise that they will then have a criminal record, which will have a serious impact on obtaining work, as well as there being other legal implications,” he said.
In an interview with eNCA on Wednesday, Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffery said the department was considering the introduction of a bill to determine which admission of guilt incidents should attract a criminal record.
Jeffrey said there had been discussion about admission of guilt fines prior to the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak because the fines attracted a criminal record.
Jeffrey said the bill proposed that most admission of guilt matters should not result in criminal records because of a variety of issues that may arise, including the question of whether due process was followed.
He said this issue would be addressed by the Judicial Matters Bill.
“People may feel pressurised to pay the fine and don’t realise that they’re going to get a record which is going to affect their rights,” said Jeffrey.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Crispin Phiri cautioned that the matter was still at an early stage and the bill would have to be signed off by the Cabinet and approved by Parliament before it became law.
Dr Mary Nel from the Department of Public Law at Stellenbosh University, said as the law currently stood, it was a long and arduous process to get a criminal record expunged.
“Having a criminal record is negative for many reasons, including that prospects of employment, and obtaining visas can be impacted by it,” she said.
If someone is convicted of a Covid-19-related offence, these prejudicial consequences would also apply, unless provision was made for a special procedure in the bill to expunge lockdown-related criminal records, said Nel.
She said the criminal record would stand until the expungement process had been completed.
“The philosophical question is, of course, whether it is appropriate to criminalise those who commit Covid-19-related offences.”
Nel said there could be less serious, non-criminal consequences that would not leave offenders with the stigma of a criminal record but could still be sufficient to ensure compliance.
“For example, administrative penalties for non-compliance that wouldn’t mean that the non-complier was a criminal, too,” she said.
Criminal sanctions could be saved for those found guilty of the most serious violations and/or repeat offenders, said Nel.
“The aim of an administrative penalty is to achieve voluntary compliance, rather than to punish non-compliance, which I think is more in line with the state’s objectives,” she said.