Quote of the week

Although judicial proceedings will generally be bound by the requirements of natural justice to a greater degree than will hearings before administrative tribunals, judicial decision-makers, by virtue of their positions, have nonetheless been granted considerable deference by appellate courts inquiring into the apprehension of bias. This is because judges ‘are assumed to be [people] of conscience and intellectual discipline, capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances’: The presumption of impartiality carries considerable weight, for as Blackstone opined at p. 361 in Commentaries on the Laws of England III . . . ‘[t]he law will not suppose possibility of bias in a judge, who is already sworn to administer impartial justice, and whose authority greatly depends upon that presumption and idea’. Thus, reviewing courts have been hesitant to make a finding of bias or to perceive a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of a judge, in the absence of convincing evidence to that effect.

L'Heureux-Dube and McLachlin JJ
Livesey v The New South Wales Bar Association [1983] HCA 17; (1983) 151 CLR 288
20 May 2008

Attacking the judiciary (II)

Prof Sandra Liebenberg has a good article in Business Day today in which she also criticises the attack by Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo on the judgment of Judge Moroa Tsoka in the Phiri water case. Money quote:

There may of course be legitimate debate about whether the judge got it right, and this is an important part of public discourse and debate in a democratic society. As is the case with legislation and policy, court judgments should also be exposed to robust critique and debate. This is fundamental to a vibrant democracy.

However, it is an entirely different matter to call into question, as Masondo has done, the duty of judges to interpret constitutional rights and to grant effective remedies in the cases that come before them. The suggestion that, in performing this role, judges are acting as though they are “above the law” or that they should form a political party if they wish to govern the land undermines the fundamental principle of the rule of law. It also contributes nothing to democratic debate about the meaning and implications of constitutional rights for the governance of our country.

I also totally agree with Prof Liebenberg – following Justice Albie Sachs? – that we should view judgments of the Constitutional Court as part of our democratic conversation. Judges are independent but the courts are one of the three branches of government and their decisions must be viewed in that light.

Instead of viewing the courts’ role in enforcing these rights as an unwelcome intrusion, Johannesburg should understand that this is part of the “constitutional conversation” between courts, the government and civil society on how best to realise human rights. Rather than detracting from democratic politics, the judicial enforcement of human rights enriches constitutional democracy. The city should view judicial intervention in cases such as Mazibuko as an opportunity for research and reflection on whether its policies are consonant with the Bill of Rights. This will enable a more constructive dialogue on whether we as South Africans are meeting our constitutional commitments to the poor.

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