Judiciary support staff have defied their management’s declaration that their sit-in is illegal and continued to down their tools yesterday, vowing to resume work after their grievances are addressed.
The sit-in, mostly at Judiciary headquarters in Blantyre, has spilled over to the police who have found themselves on the receiving end unable to take suspects to court, a development that has resulted in congestion.
The Judiciary support staff comprising court marshals, clerks, messengers and cleaners downed their tools on Tuesday to demand that their conditions of services be approved by Parliament as is the case with judicial officers, notably magistrates and judges.
They are also demanding the resignation of Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda and registrar of the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal Agnes Patemba for allegedly failing to address their grievances.
But in an interview yesterday, Patemba insisted that the strike is illegal.
The registrar echoed the sentiments in a letter signed by the Judiciary controller of human resources management and development Evans Lora on Monday addressed to the support staff and other departments.
Reads the letter: “The management has observed with concern the sit-in by some members of the Judiciary at the Principal Registry and Chief Resident Magistrates court.
“Management is aware that the current sit-in has not been called for by the union and proper procedures have not been followed. The sit-in is, therefore, illegal and management is advising all members of staff to return to their work station and resume work today [23rd day of July 2019].”
The letter further said that management appreciates that every person has the right to freedom of association and the right to assemble, but it recognises that the Judiciary has a workers union which engages management and other relevant authorities on issues of concern.
Despite the letter, the staff yesterday continued to stay away. Police moved in and fired tear gas to disperse the striking staff from the court premises where they chanted and stopped other people from entering the court premises.
Police sources said Judiciary authorities called for the intervention purportedly because the conduct of the striking staff was disrupting operations of some judicial officers and the neighbourhood.
Speaking on behalf of the staff, Harry Hepeni blamed the police for firing tear gas at the peaceful workers.
“We were at the court ground hoping that our authorities would address us until police came in full force chasing us out of the court premises using tear gas, this has made the people even angrier and we are not bowing down,” he said.
The strike by the support staff at the Supreme Court of Appeal, High Court, Blantyre Magistrate’s Court and other courts in Blantyre has paralysed the justice system with the courts not running daily operations for two days now.
Southern Region Police spokesperson Ramsey Mushani said police being part of the justice system has been negatively affected by the strike.
He expressed worry that if the strike continues, it may lead to congestion in police cells. He said police have not been able to honour the 48-hour bail rule because of the disruption.
“Police cells are just temporary holding places for suspected lawbreakers. When we arrest a suspect, we are supposed to take them to court so that they are charged.
“Some suspects await the decision of the court on whether to be granted bail, sent to prison on remand or to be freed by the court. Now, with this strike, it means we will be forced to continue to keep them,” said Mushani.
The Judiciary support staff and their management have tussled over the issues of conditions of services for years.
In 2017, Treasury approved an allocation of housing allowance for judicial officers leaving out the support staff. This prompted the support staff to down tools for over three weeks before arbitrators advised them to call it off to facilitate the right of access to justice and legal remedies of the citizens.