A GOVERNMENT court assessor pilot project, which cost R100000, has been placed on ice, allegedly by a Port Elizabeth chief magistrate who is now being investigated by the Magistrates Commission for misconduct.
In a letter to commission secretary Danie Schoeman, Port Elizabeth's District Assessors' Committee complained about chief magistrate Sibongile Raphahlelo's professional conduct.
The committee's secretary, Timothy Hendricks, accused Raphahlelo of being a bully who was "exceptionally abusive in her verbal mannerisms ... she would speak at the top of her voice or even yell at people".
Hendricks said Raphahlelo had a "disregard for people and a high regard for herself".
"It is our opinion that the chief magistrate acts as a bully in her office and has no respect for those surrounding her. We have seen her demeanour and the manner in which she even addresses magistrates. Whatever is said is treated with much contempt," Hendricks said in the letter.
Schoeman confirmed he had received the complaint and the commission would investigate.
Raphahlelo said she was not aware of the probe.
"I do not know about that. I also do not understand how they can do that without informing me. This is all I am prepared to say for now," she said.
The conflict and subsequent investigation stem from the ongoing bad relationship between Raphahlelo and the assessors' office.
Hendricks said the office had been trying to cement the relationship with Raphahlelo since she arrived at the Port Elizabeth Magistrate's Court in North End two years ago.
He said the assessors' committee and Raphahlelo had been butting heads over government's project to use lay assessors in court, as Raphahlelo wanted to use professional assessors, including lawyers and retired magistrates.
The conflict came to a head in June when 42 posts were advertised in newspapers countrywide, inviting people to apply for vacancies in the Port Elizabeth cluster. Successful candidates went through a rigorous interview process and were later trained.
In terms of the Magistrates Act 32 of 1944, magistrates are authorised to make use of lay assessors to assist the magistrates.
On July 5 this year, the assessors were sworn in by senior magistrate Christo Schutte, who is Raphahlelo's second-in-command.
They were due to start on August 1, but were told by Raphahlelo their services were no longer needed – even though money had been spent on training and inducting them, and a fully furnished office at the court was set aside for them.
One of the assessors, Pearl Daniels, said she and her colleagues had been excited to start working after undergoing rigorous training.
"But nothing is happening ... This is very frustrating."
Schoeman said he had forwarded the complaint against Raphahlelo to the commission's ethics division.
"The ethics division will forward this piece of evidence to the magistrate and ... she will be given the opportunity to present her side of the story," Schoeman said.
Both sides will present their cases to the commission next month.