‘We can’t survive’: Lowest paid magistrates in SA earn R1 million annually, but could go on strike, demanding more money

People milling outside the Pretoria Magistrate's Court in Tshwane. File Picture: Jacques Naude / Independent Newspapers

People milling outside the Pretoria Magistrate's Court in Tshwane. File Picture: Jacques Naude / Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 29, 2024


Organisations representing magistrates across South Africa are in consultation with their members who are disgruntled over salaries, which could see industrial action being rolled out by the judicial officers.

Research by IOL revealed that a Government Gazette of September last year issued by President Cyril Ramaphosa on the determination of salaries and allowances of magistrates in terms of the Magistrates Act pegs the lowest-paid magistrates at R1,077,210 per annum as total remuneration.

A special grade chief magistrate was pegged at R1,567,105 per annum; while a regional court magistrate or a chief magistrate receives R1,406,110. According to the Gazette, a senior magistrate gets R1,165,530.

On the other hand, a judge at the high court or the labour court earns almost R2 million annually. A judge at the Constitutional Court earns almost R2.5 million per annum, the same as a judge at the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The High Court in Pretoria. File Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

President of the Judicial Officers Association of South Africa, Neelan Karikan said a national executive committee meeting was held on Sunday and the process of getting a mandate from the nationwide membership regarding the way forward has started.

“Remember, we have a national footprint, and every province is currently engaging on this issue. They are going to discuss and consider what form of industrial action that might be appropriate in terms of the lower court judiciary,” Karikan spoke to broadcaster Newzroom Afrika.

He said senior counsel lawyers who appear before magistrates are earning in a day what magistrates earn in a month.

“Remember, senior counsel often appear in our courts and a magistrate will potentially earn what a senior counsel will earn in a day. I mean, the monthly salary of a magistrate will be at least one day’s pay of senior counsel and it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that when you deal with private practitioners, when they appear in our courts, they will be able to deal with one case … and us in the lower courts we are dealing with every aspect of cases,” said Karikan.

“We are currently dealing with cases which ordinarily would be in the domain of the high court. All the jurisdiction that ordinarily would have been in the high court, from murder, rape, robbery – those types of cases have filtered down into the regional court and also to us the district court.”

The Judicial Officers Associations of South Africa boasts of around 800 presiding officers in courts as its members. Top of the magistrates’ gripes is the remuneration, transfer policy, and pensions.

Karikan said the state spends about R4 million annually on a high court judge. He said judges do not contribute to any pension fund, they receive a salary for life after serving for a number of years, while magistrates are heavily taxed and have to cover own security, education for their children and contribute to the government pension fund.

He highlighted that seeking legal recourse on the salary dispute could become a lengthy process.

“Already we have spent more than a decade being patient with the Independent Remuneration Committee, we have been patient with even the ministry (of justice) and the Presidency and Parliament. The portfolio committees that discuss the aspects of the lower court judiciary, they are very aware of the agitation within the magistracy,” said Karikan.

He highlighted that the magistracy is the largest component of the judiciary, which does about 95% of all judicial work.

According to Karikan, other players in the judiciary system, for example, prosecutors who are doing about 45% of the work, but earn more than presiding officers.

“Remember, prosecutors are engaged in about 45% of all legal work because they do not actually do civil work as compared to the magistrates. The magistrates are unfortunately faced with this situation that their interests are not being catered for in any fashion and this has been happening for more than a decade,” he said.

“Currently as it stands, the prosecution as an example, they appear in our courts and they already earn substantially more than the magistrates and it doesn’t make sense. The magistrate is ultimately the presiding officer that deals with the aspects of the merits of the case, passes on the judgment and is the ultimate accounting body. When it comes to reviews and appeals, it is the magistrate that is accountable and has to write the judgments. It is not any other role-player.”

He said magistrates across South Africa are “in a very bad and dire position”.

Magistrates across South Africa are hinting at the possibility of industrial action, demanding salary increases. File Picture: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg

Karikan added that the presiding officers may consider legal action, but industrial action cannot be ruled out at this stage.

“Litigation is one option but it is a grey area when it comes to magistrates embarking on industrial action. I do not want to use the word strike, but ultimately these are discussions that are taking place in every corner of the country when it comes to the lower court judiciary,” he said.

“Ultimately, when there is a mandate, and at no time do we want to bring the judiciary into disrepute, but the idea is to ensure that the relevant role-players do their job, because right now the lower court judiciary in particular is in a very bad state, magistrates are financially strained and we do not want magistrates who might be potentially sequestrated or under debt review. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Year-on-year, unfortunately our salaries are diminishing. We literally cannot survive,” said Karikan.