The Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services today received an update on challenges in the Masters Offices and the turnaround plan for that office. The committee was briefed by the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development on the way forward.

The committee heard that the office of the Master of the High Court has been beset with challenges and customer complaints regarding various matters, including long queues, unreliable and slow systems, loss of client documents, poor infrastructure of some offices, load shedding and backlogs.

Premised on the challenges experienced by clients, the Masters embarked on a turn-around journey focusing on the modernisation and transformation of the Masters’ services. Five key strategic interventions were identified and work has already begun on these initiatives.

 Some of the concerns raised by stakeholders are lack of leadership, lack of service-delivery, email correspondence not utilised, telephones not answered, officials cannot be reached, files are misplaced, vacancies unfilled, allegations of bribery, directives issues without consultation, lack of accountability and no transparency regarding insolvency examinations.

The committee heard in terms of stakeholder management, the implementation of turnaround plans includes a toll-free contact center solution equipped with functionalities such as email, WhatsApp, SMS and reference number issuance; institute a Masters Complaints Management Committee; deliver legal literacy through partnerships with reputable media houses and to rally stakeholders in the sector to champion the Masters’ initiative.

Regarding improving processes, the committee heard plans include a review and amendment of standard operating practices, all offices to close at 13h00 for members of the public for back office to deal with the backlogs. Backlogs to be ring-fenced and quantified and consultations by stakeholders to take place strictly by appointment in the afternoons and only on two out of the five working days.

In terms of systems, the implementation plans are an online rollout for deceased estates, end-user tools accelerated upgrade/replacement, network upgrade, improved documents management and Department of Home Affairs link stabilisation (DHA dependency).

The committee further heard that in terms of the way forward, a task team and a tactical team were established to continuously monitor the implementation, continuous engagement with stakeholders at national and provincial levels is planned and areas of cooperation with stakeholders be identified, with clearly defined memorandum of understanding.

Some committee members were not pleased with the plans and said they expected more. Adv Glynnis Breytenbach said she expected an exact breakdown of the challenges at the Masters offices with how to address it. She said these are not the answers to the problems the public are experiencing with that office.

Several other committee members also took issue with what they saw as acting Chief Master, Adv Penelope Roberts, not being completely aware of the challenges raised by members of the public about the office. Mr Qubudile Dyantyi wanted to know if Adv Roberts had made enquiries about what is wrong in the Office. “… surely she should have checked what else need to be attended to when coming into the office,” he asked. Another committee member Ms Nomathemba Maseko-Jele said she was not satisfied with the explanations provided by Adv Roberts. “Was she not aware there was a problem or the outcry about that office?”

Committee Chairperson Mr Bulelani Magwanishe praised the LSSA for bringing the concerns to the committee’s attention. “This is an example of good active citizenry. It is the responsibility and duty of all to force government to work if it is not working to your satisfaction.” He said the committee will continue monitoring implementation and also refer to the issues in its legacy report to hand to the next committee in the new Parliament next year.

Rajaa Azzakani

24 November 2023