Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
3 February 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

It is always good to have one’s feet held to the fire. Criticism of the legal profession and of legal academics should therefore be welcomed – whether it comes from traditional conservative quarters or from more progressive voices in our society. Criticism (hopefully) encourages self-reflection. Incisive criticism may start a debate, which might help to enlighten us and might improve the way we all engage with the law.

It was therefore great to read that Adv Jeremy Gaunlett had delivered a speech in which he criticised the legal profession for a “lack of critical faculty not merely in the Faculty, but across the face of legal life in South Africa”.  Gauntlett – who was nominated for appointed to the Constitutional Court and the Cape High Court but has not been appointed to either court – argued that there was a complacency amongst lawyers and legal academics about problems facing the legal system in South Africa.

I think as a general proposition this is correct. Lawyers and legal academics are often far too hesitant to engage with (and speak out about) issues of social injustice and the manner in which our legal system still favours the rich and well connected and disadvantages the poor and those who do not have friends in high places.

However, Gauntlett’s gripe seems to lie elsewhere. He argues that “it is time to end an approach which is insufficiently rigorous in its scrutiny of the judgments of courts, and how they function”.

[O]ther than the writing of David Dyzenhaus, Stu Woolman and Jonathan Lewis, in the tradition of John Dugard, Tony Mathews and Barend van Niekerk, and later Fink Haysom, Clive Plasket and Etienne Mureinik, what probing critique has there been in the last five years of the work of the Constitutional Court? Those of you who are public lawyers may not agree with it all.  You may or may not agree with Jonathan Lewis when he describes the output of the Constitution Court in recent years as “evidenced by an atavistic sentimentality”, “outcome-based” and “mock-Solomonic”. But then we would all benefit if you said so.

Why have you not criticised the refusal by Justice Sachs in the Sidumo case to join Justice Ngcobo and others in determining whether the right in issue was a labour right or an administrative justice right, he urging a “move away from unduly rigid compartmentalisation so as to allow judicial reasoning to embrace fluid concepts of hybridity and permeability”? Do you share my inability to understand language like that, and the concern that it is inexact because the reasoning is not rigorous?

Amongst other things the concern, says Gauntlett, is “the lack of legal clarity”.  This kind of reasoning is, of course, plausible. If one adheres to a traditional view of the law, if one does not embrace the transformative vision of the Constitution, if one believes that the common law and other legal rules should remain untouched by the values and norms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, this yearning for “legal clarity” seems logical and necessary.

After all, the assumption that “legal clarity” was a good thing and that it used to be the norm rather than the exception in the pre-constitutional era, is widely shared by traditional lawyers in South Africa. (Of course, the fact that the belief in legal clarity often led judges enthusiastically to enforce apartheid laws or made them shy away from trying to re-work the law to minimise the inhumane effects of the common law and apartheid legislation on the majority of South Africans, is not often remarked upon by the adherents of this view.)

Of course, this view is based on a very particular approach to the law, one that assumes that “legal clarity”, “precision”, and “coherence” are not only ideals that are nice to have but can be (and are) indeed achieved. It takes for granted the correctness and moral superiority of traditional legal culture, which as Karl Klare pointed out in a seminal article in 1998 remains exceedingly formalistic, rule-bound, and more concerned with precedent and systems of logic than with the just outcomes of individual cases and with the achievement of a semblance of justice.

Gauntlett’s critique, it seems to me, is therefore an ideologically based one – although it professes to come from a neutral and apolitical place. If one assumes that traditional formal legal culture is the only acceptable and correct way of doing law, then one might well agree with Gauntlett. If one embraces a transformative vision of the Constitution – in the sense explored by Klare – then one might very well have serious problems with Gauntlett’s views set out above.

I obviously fall in the second category. My critique of lawyers and legal academics would therefore focus far more on the lack of engagement of many lawyers and legal academics with issues of social justice and the lack of critical reflection about the way in which the so called “precise” and “accurate” legal rules Gauntlett talk about often favour the powerful and wealthy in our society.

Gauntlett also highlights problems with the way we choose our judges. He states:

Other than the Bar, who contributes to researching candidacies for the Bench? Should your Society not have a review committee to do just that, to offer an objective assessment of their academic worth, judgments or other legal writing, and to offer informed criticism of candidates to the JSC?

Of course there have been some serious problems with the appointment of judges. We have appointed quite a few judges who – in my opinion – did not meet the minimum criteria for appointment, including that they should have embraced the progressive values enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

(Incidentally, my colleagues at the Democratic Governance Rights Unit have been submitting assessments about applicants for judicial office for the past two years, so Gauntlett is perhaps not as well informed as he could have been about the appointments process.)

What jumps out at me is the statement that an “objective assessment” of candidates is needed. But if we talk about the need for a transformed judiciary – by which I understand a judiciary which is staffed by judges who are not sexist, not racist, not homophobic, judges who take the social justice demands of our Constitution seriously – then this talk of an objective assessment seems rather strange if not impossible.

For me what would be interesting and worthwhile would be to have a conversation (or even a heated argument) about the ideological assumptions underlying Gauntlett’s critique. We all come from different perspectives and make different assumptions about the nature of the legal system we would like to see in South Africa. These are not uncontested and for me the problem with Gaunlett’s argument is that it attempts to erase or hide the politics and ideology on which his argument is built and pretends to come from a neutral place.

Let the conversation begin.

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