THE MASTER’S OFFICE AT A DEAD END?

Enormous power vests in the in the office of the Master of the High Court. But with power comes responsibility. In recent years, there has been far too much abuse of power and far too little responsibility. The Master’s Office is responsible, inter alia, for the Guardian’s Fund, the registration and administration of trusts and liquidations (insolvencies), but it is the administration of deceased estates that has set the standard in poor service. Things have been so bad at the Master’s Office that not only have senior officials been suspended for fraud, but the Special Investigating Unit has launched a probe into possible malfeasance.

It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic and successive lockdowns under the national state of disaster have impacted on service delivery right across the board, but in the case of the Master’s Office, things literally came to a grinding halt and have yet to recover.

This presents a plethora of problems for our Appleton Fiduciary Services company, but most importantly for our clients and their heirs. While we accept that lockdown has created a unique set of challenges, what we cannot accept is the lack of care, professionalism and attention that has come to characterise elements of the Master’s Office. This is not the case across the board and there are still some cases of exemplary service, but this begs the question: why is it that some staff provide good service in some Master’s Offices across the country, when many others in the same office not? The capricious nature of service at the Master’s Office disadvantages the poorest of the poor and particularly the families of those grieving for their deceased loved ones.

All Appleton senior administrators are members of the Fiduciary Institute of South Africa (FISA) and have been working closely with the Institute to try and find immediate and suitable solutions to the crises in the Master’s Office. The Appleton Managing Director, Tim Hughes, has engaged directly with the Minister of Justice, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Parliament’s Justice Committee and indeed the Chief Master to try and get relief for our clients. Notably, all of the above VIP stakeholders have been responsive and have undertaken to try and tackle the myriad problems besetting this key institution and for this we are grateful.

But what has become clear is that three things are lacking: leadership, dedication and systems. Leadership appears despondent and disinterested and frankly unaccountable. This has to be addressed from the top down. While some in the Master’s Office prove their dedication daily, too many in the institution are AWOL either physically or virtually. This leads to the final issue, that of appropriate systems. For some time now, Appleton and FISA have been told that new, online systems are being developed and tested that will speed up processes across the board. Instead, we have seen the entire Justice Department system being hacked and brought down.

It just isn’t good enough. South Africa and our bereaved citizens simply deserve better.

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