The court system retains Roman-Dutch elements inherited from South Africa along with elements of the traditional court system. The formal court system is arranged in three tiers: 30 magistrates' courts, the High Court, and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court serves as the highest court of appeals and also exercises constitutional review of legislation.
The traditional courts handle minor criminal offenses such as petty theft and violations of local customs. In 1991 a presidential commission recommended that the traditional courts be maintained provided they act consistently with the constitution and laws. Legislation enacted in 1993 was intended to bridge the gap between traditional and magistrates' courts by creation of a system of "community courts."
The constitution calls for an independent judiciary as well as an extensive bill of rights protecting freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion and a guarantee of redress for those whose fundamental rights have been violated. It provides for an ombudsman to deliver free legal advice upon request.
Because of a shortage of trained magistrates and lack of legal counsel, courts typically face a significant backlog of cases awaiting trial. The government appointed the first public defender in 1993 and renewed funding for representation for indigent defendants.
Although the constitution prohibits racial discrimination, some apartheid-based laws dating from before independence have not yet been repealed.