THE North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has ordered President Jacob Zuma to reconsider salary increases granted in 2010 for regional magistrates and regional court presidents.

Judge Eberhard Bertelsmann granted an order to the Association of Regional Magistrates on Monday, setting aside Mr Zuma’s decision to increase the officials’ salaries by 5% with effect from April 1 2010.

He referred the decision back to the president for reconsideration, but ordered that the increases remain in force until the president had taken the decision afresh.

Judge Bertelsmann found Mr Zuma had failed to comply with the statutory requirement to consider the public office bearers’ particular roles, statuses, functions, duties and responsibilities prior to determining an appropriate salary increase. This rendered his decision unlawful and irrational.

The magistrates maintained Mr Zuma’s decision was contrary to a 7% increase recommended by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers.

They said it did not differentiate between the various classes of public office bearers, but applied a uniform increase across the board for all public servants. It also failed to take into account the extreme disparities between the salary packages of magistrates and high court judges.

Judge Bertelsmann said the commission was obliged to make recommendations on salaries and benefits that would protect judicial officers’ independence by ensuring an adequate level of financial security.

This was important because judges and magistrates could neither negotiate directly with the executive nor resort to industrial action if they were dissatisfied.

He referred to the considerable workload of regional magistrates because of recent expansions of their jurisdiction to impose life imprisonment, together with newly conferred civil jurisdiction.

"It is common cause that the regional courts form the backbone of the criminal justice system in the republic," he said. "The court can take judicial notice of the fact that they are continuously faced with overcrowded rolls and experience many administrative and other challenges."

He found the uniform increases exacerbated the existing unfairness of the regional magistrates’ and regional court presidents’ remuneration.

The commission’s one-size-fits-all recommendation adopted by Mr Zuma, but on a reduced level, clearly did not appreciate the circumstances of the regional magistrates, Judge Bertelsmann said.

In a well-motivated memorandum, they explained that the failure to consider their particular circumstances might see them fall further behind other public office bearers if no particular provision was made for them.

Sapa