Victory for Master of High Court

Victory for Master of High Court

MASERU-THE Court of Appeal has ruled that Parliament should not stick its nose into specific cases under the Master of the High Court.
The judgement, delivered last week, confirms the High Court’s earlier ruling that barred the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) from quizzing the Master of High Court, ‘Matieho Matiea, about an estate she was accused of mishandling.

Matiea had rushed to the High Court after the PAC grilled her about the estate of the late Mapetla. This was after Mpho Mapetla, Mapetla’s daughter, had told the committee that the Master of High Court had bungled the estate.

Matiea was due to face more questions about her handling of the estate but she approached the High Court for an order to block the committee from quizzing her again.
In her court papers Matiea argued that the PAC had no powers to probe the affairs of specific cases in her office.

Justice Tšeliso Monapathi agreed with that argument and stopped the committee from calling her for questioning about the estate.
The judge found that the PAC had no power to investigate the accounts of estates in the Master’s office.
The crux of his judgement was that estate accounts are not public accounts.
Unsatisfied, the Speaker of Parliament took the matter to the Court of Appeal.

He said the High Court judgement should be reversed because the PAC has power to consider the financial affairs of all government organs.
The Master of High Court is one of those organs, he argued.
In essence the Speaker was saying because the Master’s office is audited by the Auditor General it cannot escape the PAC’s scrutiny.
The Master however countered that the PAC had misconstrued its mandate and thus overreached its mandate.

She said although she accepted that the PAC has authority to peep into the finances of organs of state like her office, it had no legal power to probe issues regarding the administration of specific issues.
In other words she was saying the committee had a general oversight role but is not allowed to get into the nitty-gritties of the estates she manages.
She said the power to adjudicate over complaints like Mpho’s lies with the High Court.

Mpho has thus bypassed the court by going to the PAC with her complaint, she argued.
The Court of Appeal agreed with that argument and endorsed the High Court’s judgement.
But even in dismissing the appeal, the apex court judges appeared to be trying to delicately balance matters.
They readily conceded that the PAC had “an important oversight function regarding the finances of the organs of the state”.
“Thus they are empowered to investigate concerns of the Auditor General about the office of the Master of the High Court,” the judgement said.
They however said this oversight power does not extend to pursuing “individual complaints about specific estates that are being handled by the Master”.

The judges performed the same balancing act on the question of whether a court can stop parliamentary proceedings as it did when it stopped the committee from grilling the Master.
“A court of law may generally not interrupt parliamentary proceedings, especially with regard to parliament’s function to legislate, but may order a parliamentary committee not to exceed its legal mandate”.
In the end it appears to have come down to the sanctity of the principal of separation of powers. The judges were saying each should stay in its lane by strictly obeying the checks and balances.

For the Master the judgement means a proverbial monkey is off her back.
No longer can she be quizzed over specific estate issues. That, of course, does not mean other issues in her offices are insulated from parliament’s scrutiny.

Staff Reporter

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