Access to justice for all citizens has long been recognized as a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, and effective and equitable development. Its centrality has been highlighted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16), which calls for all societies to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (United Nations, 2016).
Providing access to justice requires meeting several conditions, not least of which is ensuring public confidence in the courts. It requires that citizens are confident that laws will be fairly and effectively applied.
Read PP39 for more information on access to justice in Africa
Voices of South Africans
How much trust do ordinary South Africans have in the integrity of their judicial system?
The majority of South Africans (53%) trust their courts “just a little” or “not at all”, compared to 43% who trust them “somewhat” or “a lot.” Trust in courts is lower than in media broadcasters, the health ministry, and the army.
There are some pronounced demographic patterns in levels of trust. The poor and the uneducated are significantly more likely to say that they do not trust the courts. Given that the poor are a primary target of efforts to improve access to justice (Brems and Adekoya, 2010), it is of particular note that trust is markedly lower among this group.
A majority of South Africans have expressed trust in the courts in each of the previous Afrobarometer surveys, but this trust has been weakening since the 2011 survey.
- The 2021 survey was the first instance where a majority of respondents (53%) indicate little or no trust in the judiciary.
- Respondents with greater experiences of lived poverty and less education are less trusting of the courts than more secure and educated respondents.
Prominent leaders continue to cite Afrobarometer’s evidence-based research in public speeches and use the data as a basis for informing decisions and focusing their efforts.
Laying out her vision for the South African judiciary during the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interviews for the position of Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court in February 2022, Justice Maya remarked that one of her top concerns is South Africans’ loss of trust in the judiciary, a matter she stressed as needing urgent attention.
“Some of the key issues I’ve identified as requiring attention, some very urgent attention, are the following in no order of importance. Among my top worries is the report of the 2021 Afrobarometer survey that the public’s trust in the judiciary has declined. As we all know, loss of confidence in the judiciary does not augur well for the rule of law and our democracy, and I think that this is something that needs the attention of the judiciary itself to do an introspection and check if we are to blame for this change of attitude towards the institution.”
Watch Justice Mandisa’s address: begin at 49:33.