The undefended accused on trial : justice in the lower courts.
Steytler, Nicolaas Christiaan.
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Due to the party-orientation and professional nature of the adversary mode of criminal procedure, the principles of a fair trial are best observed where the accused is represented by a lawyer. Given the advantages to be gained from legal representation, the principle of equal justice requires that all accused should have access to legal assistance and thus that legal aid should be provided for indigent accused. The South African legal aid scheme cannot yet provide assistance to all indigent accused because of the large number of these accused, the shortage of manpower and the lack of funds. There are, however, few legislative provisions to safeguard the rights of the vast majority of accused, arraigned in the lower courts, who remain undefended. The Supreme Court, in order to ensure that these accused are fairly tried, has imposed the following types of duties on judicial officers: (a) a duty to facilitate the accused's participation in the proceedings by advising him of his rights and duties and assisting him in their exercise; (b) a duty to control the prosecutor in the exercise of his powers; and (c) a duty to conduct an enquiry before arriving at administrative-type decisions. These duties are, however, inadequate to achieve the Court's, objective because, firstly, not all, rights are made accessible to the accused, and secondly, the duties are inadequate to ensure that the accused's guilt is reliably established. The failure of the legislature and the Supreme Court to incorporate the principle of equal justice into the legal process, has resulted in court proceedings that are characterized by unjust practices and outcomes. To ensure the more equitable prosecution of undefended accused it is suggested that an activist judicial officer should be responsible for the enforcement of all the principles of a fair trial (which would be concretized in clear legal rules) in an impartial manner, with his decisionmaking routinely supervised by the Supreme Court.