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
12 March 2007

CC judges clueless?

A reader takes issue with my post on the Constitutional Court’s engagement with the common law in which I wrote:

The CC quoted from a 1938 decision of the Appellate Division to demonstrate that the SCA had not understood its own common law jurisprudence – thus suggesting that the SCA judges were rather slow and uninformed.

A reader thinks I am, at the very least, unkind to the judges of the Supreme Court of Appeal and writes:

Do you really believe the SCA did not know about this judgment? Or that the SCA does not understand its own common law jurisprudence?
Considering the glaring lack of legal expertise and experience on the constitutional court — isn’t more likely that it was the Concourt which didn’t grasp the common law?
My comment was, of course, slightly tongue in cheek. Most judges on the SCA probably have an encyclopedic knowledge of the common law. But my serious point was that judges of the Constitutional Court also deal with the common law, are competent to do so, and have the final say whether they want to do so or not. In that sense, the CC really has become the most important court in South Africa.

The view that the judges of the CC have a glaring lack of expertise and experience does not seem, to me, to be born out by the facts. Because of section 39(2) of the Constitution which says that when interpreting or developing the common law, courts must take into account the values, spirit and purport of the Bill of Rights, every common law case is now potentially a constitutional case. Judges from the CC thus deal with common law issues all the time.

They also deal with many other aspects of the law, from criminal procedure to trade marks, law of contract to law of delict. I think informed readers of such judgments would be hard pressed to argue that these judges were clueless about the topics they pronounced on.

This is not surprising because judges in the CC have access to abundant resources. They only hear about 30 substantial cases a year and each judge has at least two research clerks who can ferret out any information needed in the world class library on Constitution Hill. This means they have far more time to study the law than the poor judges in the SCA and it is thus not unlikely that their support staff discovered case law unfamiliar to the overworked judges of the SCA.

Of course, lawyers who see the Constitution as a “soft law” issue, have always been suspicious of the judges of the Constitutional Court and believe that they do not really know anything about the “real law”. I cannot say whether the reader quoted above was motivated by such a suspicion, but without evidence about the ignorance of the CC judges, I am going to assume that such views are based on a formalistic understanding of the law and a suspicion of more explicitly value based legal reasoning.

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