An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.
The Cape Times report today (subscription required):
The Judicial Services Commission (JSC) convenes today to deal with the thorny matter of impeachment proceedings brought against Cape Judge President John Hlophe, who is accused of “gross incompetence” by a top city advocate.
Peter Hazell, SC, asked the JSC to investigate a string of accusations against Judge Hlophe last August. At its last meeting, the commission decided to give Judge Hlophe the right to reply before the matter could be finalised.
One of the complaints levelled against Judge Hlophe is that he was in contempt of court because of his public statements that he “couldn’t care less” about the findings of the Supreme Court of Appeal in the case between the health minister and the pharmaceutical companies.
Judge Hlope’s response, unfortunately, is not very encouraging. “With respect,” he said” “I do not think the JSC has criminal jurisdiction over judges.” Which rather misses the point, which is that judges are constitutionally bound not to act in a manner that could be construed as grossly incompetent or as constituting gross misconduct.
I am glad I am not on the JSC and I am sure glad I am not the Chief Justice who will have to try and sort out this mess. It seems like a no-win situation. Judge Hlophe will not be impeached by the JSC because his missteps “only” show stupidity and arrogance on his side. If these were impeachable offences many a judge would have been out of a job. Unfortunately Judge Hlophe’s reputation will be further tarnished by the process and respect for the judiciary will be further compromised.
At the same time, the reactionary lawyers and judges who predicted (and was hoping for) his downfall from the start of his tenure, will be able to point to Judge Hlophe when they moan about the perils of transformation. He has become the worst kind of poster child for transformation because he has misused arguments about racism to help excuse his unwise behaviour.
The best possible outcome would be if Judge Hlophe could be persuaded to step down. Don’t we need a new ambassador in Zimbabwe or Iraq?