Upholding the law

I grew up on a television diet of Reasonable Doubt, Law and Order and NYPD Blue. Unknowingly, from a young age, I was passionate about the pursuit of truth and justice. I will admit; I had imagined myself as a lawyer in a courtroom one day, until I found my true calling in journalism. This career brought a deeper respect and admiration for the legal profession. I covered court cases and watched in awe as lawyers, prosecutors, magistrates and judges worked tirelessly so that justice could be seen to be done. Whatever the verdict, it didn’t take away from the fact that the process was fair.
The many developments over the past few years in South Africa have re-inforced the strength and independence of our judiciary. I am extremely proud of that. And that’s why I was elated when a dear friend was appointed as an aspirant magistrate at the Evander Magistrate’s Court based in Mpumulanga.
Being the ever so humble person that she is, she did not inform me. But it was a picture that she momentarily put up on her personal cellphone profile that gave it away. My heart screamed with joy.
Chetna Singh and I met ten years ago when we both were chosen for the Know India Programme by the Indian Consulate. A small group of participants from Durban and Pietermaritzburg (Chetna’s home) travelled together to India on this amazing three week programme. We bonded, so much so, that we didn’t just stay in touch, we became friends. Over the past decade, we have shared many life changing moments together. This was one of them. Despite Chetna’s many protests, and the lady did protest much, I was persistent that her story needed to be told. Eventually, she agreed. Here is her story, in her own words…
Lady Justice, Legal, Law, Justice
Reflecting on why I chose law, I suppose at the time I had poor self-esteem. I recall my father asking me if I wanted to apply for medicine but I replied that I didn’t – why? Because I thought I wasn’t intelligent enough to get in! Law seemed a safe option because I had observed lawyers in my family and was comfortable with the idea that this degree was indeed attainable.
I went on to study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, law campus for the LLB degree in 2002 which I completed in 2007. In 2004 I switched from being a full time student to a part time one and simultaneously, commenced my articles of clerkship under my father who is also an attorney – this practice was known as Surendra Singh & Associates.
In June 2006, having only one course outstanding to complete my LLB degree, I enrolled at the Durban School for Legal Practice which had become compulsory by then for admittance purposes. I was admitted as an attorney bearing a right of appearance in the High Court on 19th October 2007.
Club, Auction, Law, Symbol, Judge, Legal
I conducted criminal trials predominantly in the high court on circuit through judicare instructions.  Being on judicare meant that the Legal Aid Board of South Africa (LASA) sent me instructions via SMS to appear for those accused persons who were indigent but needed legal assistance. Circuit meant that a high court was set up in various jurisdictions throughout KwaZulu-Natal to hear the matters – I worked as far afield as Ramsgate, Ladysmith, Newcastle and Vryheid.  I defended accused indicted with murder, rape and armed robbery. The experience I gained therefrom was nothing short of eye opening and I become somewhat neurotic as a result of what I became aware of – the manner in which criminals operated particularly insofar as the military precision of their operations was concerned, the cruelty and callousness of regard for human life…. I recall one of the accused as thee most belligerent of all the accused I defended; the manner in which he slit a farmer’s wife’s throat is best left to the aficionados of criminology.
Arms Arrest Crime Criminal Handcuffs Hands
Having given birth in 2013 to my daughter Saanchi, I failed to practice law for no less than 11 months and two weeks whereupon I landed a position as an acting magistrate at the Pietermaritzburg Magistrates Court. I commenced presiding as a relief magistrate over the criminal section from 4th August 2014.
It was really the three and a half years spent here that dyed and stained my world in a way that I can never go back to before … I encountered those humans so low on the class rung of society; a sense of hopeless engulfed me for many moons before another, stronger urge took over.
Equity, Fairness Equitable, Letters
It came some seven or eight months thereafter when, having been placed permanently in a court (court G).  I also inherited the “PI” short for preliminary inquiry, a new and novel process legislatively grafted for children who came into conflict with the law. Realising the laws were brilliant on paper, but nothing short of a farce due to a complete breakdown of communication and resources to name a few, energised me into creating stakeholders meetings under a new committee formed and blessed by my then Chief Magistrate, Mpho Evelyn Monyemore.
I digress at this point to bring up the uncomfortable discussion we should all be having after the “mother who beat her toddler video” aired. In the same way that doctors are healers, we as lawyers and presiding officers should be healers too. We ought to be able to rectify the damage caused by bringing the scales of justice back into balance using the infamous Zinn triad (S v Zinn 1969) as our North Star and , bearing in mind that punishment must always fit the crime and be fair to society yet also “blended with a measure of mercy” ( S v Rabie 1975).
The process at the heart of the PI is something called Ubuntu, as a method of restorative justice. Similarly, the best resolution the mother of the toddler can hope for her punishment is also, restorative justice.  This will be punishment that fits her dim circumstances, addresses her shortcomings as a parent, her frustration BUT also takes into account the desires of the child, who no matter what, will still want her mother.
Hence, the restoration of the family unit in a manner that is peaceful and promotes civility is at the heart of my prime purpose as a judicial officer.
Hands, Protect, Protection, Father
Lest I forget a further game changer in my life… let me beg your readers, the lady lawyers, to enroll for the “Significant Leadership Programme for Women Lawyers” hosted by LEAD and LSSA ( LEAD= Legal Education and Development, LSSA = Law Society of SA). Run under the helm of Dr Jean Marie-Retief the programme is packed with punch and will delight, stir and evoke everything ready within the soul to be given a head start into a new life purpose or core ideology.
I leave you with only the quote “Your life is a message to the world; make sure it’s an inspiring one.”
Board Blackboard Equality Freedom Harmony

3 thoughts on “Upholding the law

  1. Written with such humilty.
    Proud to learn about a young, female magistrate -certainly a career I assumed to be predominated by old males!
    Lastly, the initiatives in place for women in the sector is encouraging.
    Thank You Maya, for sharing yet another Amazing individudl.

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