Lawyers’ trust in rule of law mostly positive

Jana-Mari Smith
Jana-Mari Smith
While public trust in the courts has declined over the past decade, legal professionals’ trust in judicial competence and independence remains mostly positive, a new survey has found.
“Trust in the competence of the judiciary is strong, albeit lower amongst more experienced respondents,” a 2021 survey among Namibian legal practitioners found.
In contrast, Afrobarometer survey results for Namibia show that between 1999 and 2019, public trust in the courts has declined sharply, from 64% in 1999 to 54% by 2019, and it is now at its lowest in more than a decade.
However, experienced legal professionals’ views, as per a survey published under the title “Trust in the judiciary and perceived strength of the rule of law”, show that those involved in the day-to-day workings of Namibia’s rule of law are more confident in the judiciary’s independence and competence.
The survey results did highlight several issues that “may raise concern”, however. Among them, the majority (83%) of legal practitioners are concerned that steep legal fees in Namibia “deter people from taking high court legal actions”.
Almost half admitted that they “in fact advise clients not to approach the courts due to high legal fees”.
Good and bad
Issues highlighted also include widespread skepticism that judges are appointed solely on merit, and a substantial level of distrust was shared by several lawyers and advocates in the impartiality of judges, especially High Court judges.
Among the respondents, 46% do not believe that judges are appointed on merit, and 63% are of the opinion that judges are appointed for reasons other than merit.
A majority (62%) also believe that success in the High Court is dependent on the judge assigned to the case, and 51% believe a “judge’s personal convictions influence the outcome of a High Court case”.
Only 17% believe that judges of the High Court are equally impartial in adjudicating a matter.
“This indicates a substantial level of distrust in some High Court judges,” the report notes.
Trust in the impartiality of Supreme Court judges was substantially higher.
The survey found there is “substantial” trust that judges of the High Court and Supreme Court are not vulnerable to bribery or threats of reprisals in attempts to sway the outcomes of cases.
The legal profession however stands divided on whether loyalty to government or a political party may influence judges, but more believe this to be unlikely of Supreme Court judges.
More respondents (35%) believe the powers of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) “may influence judges than those who believe the JSC’s powers do not influence judges (15%)”.
More than half of the respondents (53%) said the Office of the Judiciary supports the principle of separation of powers.
Wavering trust
Public perception about the involvement of judges and magistrates in corruption, per Afrobarometer surveys, shows that the belief that ‘some’ or ‘most’ judges and magistrates are involved in corruption increased from 53% in 2012 to 76% in 2019.
In contrast, legal practitioners’ view of corruption in the judiciary, showed that only 5% believe it increased ‘a lot’, and 20% said it increased ‘somewhat’. A majority (65%) said corruption in the courts ‘stayed the same’.
A handful of practitioners (10%) said corruption decreased ‘somewhat’ or a ‘lot’.
Although the authors of the report stress that there is no baseline indicator to make a meaningful assessment of the views on levels of corruption, “it is however telling that substantially more legal practitioners” felt corruption is increasing (25%) as opposed to 10% who said it is decreasing.
Most respondents (57%) agreed that High Court judgments are legally sound, compared to only 17% who disagreed. However, senior practitioners in terms of years admitted to court were more inclined to disagree with the soundness of High Court judgments.
Overall, the survey found legal practitioners showed more trust in the legal soundness of Supreme Court judgments, compared to High Court judgments.
The survey was compiled by Eben de Klerk of ISG Risk Services in partnership with Christiaan Keulder of Survey Warehouse, and funded by the Legal Practitioners Fidelity Fund.
The survey results were based on 221 responses received from members of the Law Society of Namibia (LSN), all of whom are admitted legal practitioners.