South Africans whose trials are delayed by strike could end up suing government, lawyer says

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A nationwide civil service strike entering its third week is causing massive backlogs at courthouses, and a top South African lawyer said Friday that defendants whose legal proceedings are delayed could end up suing the government for damages.

Some legal experts are calling for the courts to be declared essential services as the administrative staff strike has dragged on with no end in sight.

"Access to justice is one of the basic principles of the rule of law. Remember that justice delayed is justice denied," said Paul Hoffman, director of the independent Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa.

Among the court hearings postponed by the strike was one for the man who has been charged in connection with the car crash that killed Nelson Mandela's great-granddaughter in June.

The defendants accused of shooting an exiled former Rwandan general in an assassination attempt also have had their hearings postponed.

Hoffman said defendants left waiting because of the strike do have a recourse under South African law: "These people can and should demand their cases to be thrown out of court because of the delayed trial," he said.

Still, Hoffman warned that could mean some criminals could get off on a technicality, angering people in a country that has one of the world's highest rates of violent crime.

Lawyer Mike Pothier said the government should declare courts as essential services to discourage courthouse administrative staff from going on strike.

He said those defendants whose cases have been delayed by the strike should make urgent applications to the high court for speedy hearings.

The 1 million civil service strikers are demanding an 8.6 percent wage raise, and they have rejected the government's 7.5 percent offer.

South Africa has been hit hard by the global recession, losing 900,000 jobs last year on top of already high unemployment. The government has said it wants to devote funds to creating new jobs, not just raising the salaries of those already working.

Public hospitals and schools have been hardest hit by the strike, which has been marred by sporadic violence. Infants have had to be evacuated from intensive care units to private hospitals, and army medics and volunteers are helping out in public institutions.

Students are missing class while teachers strike, and work at the country's passport offices and morgues also has slowed.