Civil proceedings can land one in jail


HARARE – While most people are of the view that committing a criminal offence is the only way that can land them in jail, civil lawsuits can also turn criminal if one fails to follow a court order.

Imagine a scenario in which one approaches the courts demanding his or her money from another person and decides to take the legal process to recover the cash, but only to find themselves in prison.

While this may sound impractical, it is the reality in the legal world especially when one fails to present his or her civil case properly and loses out on a technicality.

Such is law!

A basic civil action is a lawsuit filed by one person — the plaintiff — against another person, who in court papers is called a defendant or respondent.

In most cases, the plaintiff files a suit against a defendant to pay money to compensate him or her for harm caused to the plaintiff.

The most common scenario emanates from disputes that arise when someone fails to stick to agreed terms of contract or fails to pay for services rendered.

It also applies when someone gets injured in a car accident or when there is a dispute over a property line; and when a landlord wants to evict a tenant.

Child custody and divorce cases are also dealt with through the civil process.

If one does not respond to summons and complaint, then a default judgment can be entered against him or her by the court.

A person can apply for a warrant for civil imprisonment against a defendant especially if the defendant does not have means to settle the amount ordered by the court.

Not only can litigants apply for civil imprisonment when respondents fail to pay off their debt, but the applicants themselves can find themselves behind bars if they lose and fail to pay costs as would have been ordered by the court.

Harare lawyer Arthur Marara told the Daily News that civil imprisonment is governed in terms of Order 28 of the Magistrates Court Rules.

“It is one of the other many ways available for purposes of enforcing a civil judgment. This involves committing the debtor to prison,” explained Marara.

In such circumstances most people bank their trust in lawyers, who seem to be the only hope for their freedom or an escape from honouring their promises.

The services of lawyers however do not come cheap; hence the court proceedings turn costly.

Lawyers sometimes do the job for free especially in cases where one is facing charges that attract capital punishment and cannot afford services of a legal practitioner.

Marara said lawyers’ charges are governed in terms of the Law Society of Zimbabwe Tariff.

“The charges are different from one lawyer to the other depending on the lawyer’s experience,” said Marara.

He said as part of lawyers’ corporate responsibility, they appear pro-deo. “This refers to cases whereby lawyers are supposed to render services to clients without them levying fees.

 “This facility is available to people who will be facing capital crimes like murder and treason.
“Almost every lawyer has done a pro-deo case.”

Marara said the Registrar of the High Court has a register of all the lawyers, and it is from that list that he allocates pro-deo matters.

“Practically no one pays the lawyers. It’s part of corporate social responsibility.” – Tendai Kamhungira

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