DAWN inspection visit to family court opens ugly can of worms

DA Women’s Network (DAWN) leader Nomafrench Mbombo
DA Women’s Network (DAWN) leader Nomafrench Mbombo
Image: Sipokazi Fokazi

Magistrates who painted their nails during sessions, women with children at their sides, feeding bottles emptied as they waited for hours for justice, and family court public servants who were biased against complainants.

These were some of the stories told about East London’s domestic violence court to DA Women’s Network (DAWN) leader Nomafrench Mbombo.

She was conducting an oversight inspection of the East London magistrate’s court on Friday.

She was shocked when she spoke to women waiting to have their domestic abuse and maintenance complaints addressed.

Mbombo, who is also the Western Cape health MEC, had been alerted to challenges women faced in having their grievances addressed at the court.

She was also introduced to attorneys who complained of magistrates “painting their fingernails” while court was in session.

Mbombo, who is originally from Mdantsane, conversed freely with women waiting to have their cases heard, and at one point carried a woman’s toddler into a court manager’s office to emphasise the point that many women had no choice but to bring their children along to court, but were then made to wait hours in waiting rooms.

“This woman came all the way from PE with her baby. All three bottles of milk she brought for the child have been finished since she’s been waiting here,” Mbombo told DispatchLIVE. “We need to find a way of prioritising those with small children.”

In the family court, she found a lot of “newcomers” who previously had been reluctant to speak up and have domestic violence issues addressed by authorities.

“To me it looks like there are a lot of patriarchal tendencies here, and there are preconceived notions about the women who come here. It’s as if public servants are determining the outcomes without hearing their side of the story.

“Culturally, a lot of women want to portray that they have a beautiful family, so when they come here, it is because it is a last resort.”

An attorney who spoke to the Dispatch on condition of anonymity, said the court was letting down a lot of people.

“I had a case of economic abuse. A woman approached the court to have her ex-husband pay for her medical aid. The magistrate refused, saying no-one could have their own medical aid,” the attorney said.

In another instance, a protection order was denied because a magistrate ruled that a protection order was “just a piece of paper” and would not prevent the woman from being attacked.

DA BCM caucus chair Vaughan Holmes said dysfunctional courts were dissuading people from reporting domestic abuse and harassment cases.

“You seldom hear of anyone who has a good experience.

“The problem starts when you have the wrong people in positions of authority who have no compassion for victims.

“We call on the department of justice to do a satisfaction survey of the people at the court, so they can have an idea of what’s really happening,” he said.

Mbombo said DAWN would draw up a number of proposals to address issues at the court and submit these to the relevant authorities. She would also return to the court at a later stage to do a follow-up inspection.