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South African legal system

As the Oscar Pistorius trial is firmly underway and has now become a firm feature in the daily media landscape, what with a channel dedicated exclusively to the trial, I thought it appropriate, over the next couple of weeks, to focus on various aspects of our South African criminal justice system. In the unlikely event that anyone missed it, this is the case of the world renown paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentines Day 14 February 2013, by shooting her, through the closed toilet door, in their home. Mr. Pistorius denies the charge of murder and contends that when he fired the shots at the bathroom door, he thought there was an intruder in his home.

See also: Oscar Pistorius and Domestic Violence in SA 

The case which has many people riveted to their screens, has also made history, as it’s the first time in our legal history where the media is allowed to televise a trial, live. With the trial having the world’s media attention focused on what actually happened on that fateful night, the rest of the world also has the unique opportunity of seeing how our criminal justice system operates. In South Africa we have an adversarial judicial system where the presiding officer, (magistrate or judge) would hear the litigation of both the defence and the State and then give a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Our criminal system is different to what we may see on television or in any movies based on the American legal system, where they have a jury to hear and reach a verdict of an accused person. Our law is based on Roman Dutch law and English law. Magistrates would hear a matter in the District and Regional Court and are addressed as “Your Worship”, whilst Judges preside in the High Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court and are addressed as “ Mi’Lord or M’Lady”. The District Court is our lowest court and deals with lesser serious charges, such as road traffic offences, theft, drunk driving, assault etc. The Regional Court hears more serious cases, like Assault with Intention to do Grievous Bodily Harm, Housebreaking, Rape. Finally the High Court hears very serious cases including Murder, Treason and others. The presiding officer is not given any evidence or information about the case before the trial and is expected to conduct the trial in a neutral and independent manner. The Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 is the Act which is relied by both the Defence and the State to promote and advance their respective case. This Act, which sets out in great detail all aspects of our criminal law, is the primary source for the “rules of engagement” by both sides.

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