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While the announcement that Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola agreed to a joint hearing of the Life Esidimeni case was welcomed by most, a lawyer shared his concern that if the case drags on for months, it may be “costly and painful” for the families. He added that in this case, an inquest is not prerequisite to prosecute those responsible. Earlier this week, the minister acceded to a request given to him by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) last year about conducting a joint hearing into the 144 Life Esidimeni deaths and designating a judge to preside...
While the announcement that Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola agreed to a joint hearing of the Life Esidimeni case was welcomed by most, a lawyer shared his concern that if the case drags on for months, it may be “costly and painful” for the families.

He added that in this case, an inquest is not prerequisite to prosecute those responsible.

Earlier this week, the minister acceded to a request given to him by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) last year about conducting a joint hearing into the 144 Life Esidimeni deaths and designating a judge to preside over an inquest in the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

Welcoming this announcement by Lamola was the Helen Suzman Foundation, which was involved in the case.

Its legal researcher Chris Pieter said: “The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) welcomes Justice Minister Ronald Lamola’s decision to request the appointment of a judge to preside [over] an inquest into the events surrounding the 144 deaths of Life Esidimeni patients. The HSF believes that the appointment and the holding of an inquest will assist in the search for justice.”

Also welcoming this move was former Section 27 lawyer Mark Heywood. However, he said while the arbitration process established why what happened had happened and brought relief to the victims’ families, he worried that the families would have to go through the process all over again which would be painful. He also added that if it were to drag on for months, it would also be a costly matter.

He said that Judge Dikgang Moseneke, the judge who chaired the arbitration, had recommended that possible prosecutions should take place. Moseneke had also shared that “he did not know the real motives” behind the deaths because they were not explained by the people who were giving evidence. Therefore, he advised that the inquest “should start where the arbitration ended”.

He also added that it was not “prerequisite” to have an inquest for criminal prosecution in this matter as the arbitration had already provided evidence and that the South African Police Service’s Special Investigative Unit was already carrying out an investigation on the same matter.

“My concern is how to do (the inquest) in a way that does not duplicate (the arbitration) and overlap,” said Heywood.

National Prosecuting Authority Gauteng spokesperson Phindi Louw-Mjonondwane said that the purpose of an inquest hearing was to determine the circumstances surrounding unnatural death/s and whether people found responsible can be liable for them.

She said: “There are four findings that the presiding officer must make: identity of the deceased person; the date of death; the likely cause of death; and whether death was caused by an act/omission on the part of anyone which amounts to an offence (whether anyone can be held accountable for the death.”

“This is what we aim to achieve. The NPA cannot pre-empt what the inquiry will uncover/discover, let us allow the process to unfold, give space for whoever that will be appointed as the presiding judge to do their work and reach a finding. Once that is concluded, the NPA will be in a position to inform society on how it will deal with the matter going forward.

“A final decision on whether to prosecute or not, can only be made after the conclusion of the inquest, taking into consideration the findings of the presiding judge,” said Louw-Mjonondwane.

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