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.
A few months after the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) decided that it was not worth trying to find out whether it was Judge President John Hlophe, on the one hand, or some of the judges of the Constitutional Court, on the other, who had lied to it, I gave a talk via video-link to academics in New York about the whole saga.
I had previously taken quite a firm stance (to say the least) against the decision by the JSC not to continue with its investigation, so some of my American colleagues seemed taken aback when I told them that while the decision by the JSC was clearly wrong and bad for the integrity and independence of the judiciary, it was quite understandable that the JSC came to this conclusion and that I had some sympathy for the members of the JSC who in effect voted in favour of protecting Hlophe – despite the evidence and the logic demanding a full enquiry.
I explained that given the fact that only a small percentage of advocates in South Africa are black or female and even fewer of them are Senior Counsel, given further that advocates work for themselves and are likely to flounder unless they are absolutely brilliant or unless they can count on the informal support of colleagues and members of the attorney’s profession, and given the fact that there are still some white advocates — maybe good people, but part of the dominant group and therefore not always attuned to both the very practical and the more intangible problems faced by black and female advocates who join what they experience as a hostile environment — many black advocates feel angry and disillusioned.
Some people in the legal profession find this perplexing. Others complain that black advocates are not buckling up and that they are far too sensitive or spoilt. These complaints often emanate from men who do not seem to “get it” because they happen to be steeped in the culture and unspoken assumptions that reflect their own life experience but not that of black, female and gay and lesbian advocates.
Some heterosexual white men who have always operated in an institutional culture that reflects their world view, their life experience and their way of being in the world find it difficult to comprehend that this culture can be extremely alienating and exclusionary to those who do not share their cultural and professional experience. This institutional culture — which is changing, but perhaps faster in Johannesburg than in Cape Town – is constituted by both formal rules and informal rules that are so part of the dominant group’s life experience that they do not seem to them like rules at all, but just “the way things are”. I suspects large parts of the legal profession are only now beginning to grapple with the kind of changes needed to create a culture that respects or even celebrates the diversity of our country.
I cannot speak for black South Africans or for women, but as a gay man I am acutely aware of the ways in which an institutional culture that does not embrace diversity can disempower one and can make one feel inferior and excluded. This can often work in both harsh and more subtle ways.
One may not be invited to the drinks, the braai, a golf day or the team meeting where bonds are forged, informal alliances made, or informal decisions taken about who will be awarded juicy and interesting work. A feeling of being watched and judged, of always having to prove oneself because one is not “one of the boys”, can permeate one’s professional life. For people who are perhaps not as confident or outgoing as myself or are not as prepared as myself to stand up for themselves and to make “trouble” (yes, I have always had that problem), the professional consequences could be catastrophic.
In this context, it was perhaps inevitable and even understandable that the complaint against John Hlophe – the Judge President of the Division with the smallest number of black Advocates – would be perceived as an attack on black lawyers in general. This is not about taking a “reasoned and principled” stand, but about a highly emotional response that emanates from a highly irregular and unsatisfactory situation.
In fact, I would suspect that for many black lawyers the very “reasons and principles” that those of us who clamoured for a full inquiry in the Hlophe matter relied on, might well have appeared — rightly or wrongly — like nothing more than the “conventional wisdom” of white and privileged lawyers who wished to impose their way of doing things on a vulnerable and angry minority in the profession or to punish an “uppity” black man.
One is always wiser in hindsight, but given my view of the legal profession described above, I might well have employed a slightly different tone on the Hlophe matter. I might well have tempered the outrage of many of my posts of the time. (This outrage, I must confess, was animated by a fierce loyalty towards, and support for, the institution of the Constitutional Court, whose judgments I often strongly disagree with but whose members I respect unconditionally.)
Which brings me to the recent judgment of Mabusa J in the North Gauteng High Court in the case of Freedom Under Law v Acting Chairperson: Judicial Service Commission and Others.
What is not in dispute in this case is, first, that there are significant disputes of fact. Put more bluntly: either judge Hlophe lied or one or more of the Judges of the Constitutional Court lied to the JSC. Second, the JSC decided, before it was reconstituted after the 2009 election, that if the allegations against Judge President Hlophe were true (in other words, if the Constitutional Court judges were not lying) this would constitute gross misconduct that warrant impeachment. After the JSC was reconstituted it eventually decided not to proceed with an inquiry to try and establish whether it was Hlophe or one or more of the judges of the Constitutional Court who were lying because the evidence available to the JSC at that point did not provide conclusive proof either way.
What emerges from the judgment is that the JSC in effect decided that the evidence of the Constitutional Court judges (including Nkabinde and Jaftha JA) presented to the JSC was not of a sufficiently high calibre to support a prima facie case against Judge President Hlophe. At its most generous, one could argue that Mabusa J found that even if the evidence of Nkabinde and Jaftha were true (something disputed by Hlophe) there was not a clear enough case against the Judge President to prove gross misconduct.
In reviewing this decision, the High Court applied a rather old fashioned test familiar to lawyers who battled against apartheid state of emergency regulations, instead of a post-constitutional test in line with the requirements of the Rule of Law and constitutionally-enhanced rules of administrative justice. It asked whether the JSC had indeed “applied its mind” to the matter. The judgment states, correctly, that the court could not declare the JSC decision invalid merely because it disagreed with it or because it was unwise. But it seemed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It failed to appreciate that in a constitutional state, a court should review a decision by a constitutional body like the JSC applying a slightly more stringent test than merely asking whether the decision-makers applied their minds to the issue at hand. The Rule of Law – a founding principle of our Constitution – now requires this.
When dealing with the question of whether two members of the JSC should have recused themselves because they made statements in support of Hlophe in the months before the JSC decision was taken, the Court similarly applied a pre-constitutional standard and assumed that as long as the impugned members had given plausible explanations of why they would not have been biased, despite having made statements in support of Judge President Hlophe previously, that was the end of the matter.
This is not the constitutional era test for bias requiring recusal. In a constitutional state the test is whether a reasonable person, imbued with all the facts, might have had a reasonable apprehension that the particular members of the JSC were biased or not. The High Court failed to annunciate or apply this test.
Ironically – given the fact that Judge President Hlophe is said to be a champion of legal transformation — the judgment seems to rely on an apartheid-era style of legal reasoning to find against FUL. Those who support the transformation of the legal system — whether they are supporters of Judge President Hlophe or not — should therefore be concerned about the untransformed and conservative nature of the principles and style of reasoning relied on by the High Court to come to the conclusion it did.
But does this mean the judgment should be appealed? Given the racialised nature of the case and the damage already caused by the Hlophe affair to the judiciary, and given the possibility that Parliament would not impeach Hlophe even if the JSC recommended it, should we not perhaps let sleeping dogs lie? I am less enthusiastic about such an appeal going froward than I would have been a year ago. But on balance I would argue that in the interest of the transformation of the legal system, the highly problematic apartheid-style reasoning of the High Court should not go unchallenged.
Maybe those judges in of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) in Bloemfontein – who in the past have not always embraced the transformative vision of the Constitution with the enthusiasm one would have wanted — may correct the legal misconceptions in this case so that the correct kind of legal reasoning could be applied the next time such a case comes before the High Courts.
It might well be that if the SCA sets aside the JSC decision, the JSC will revisit its decision and again decide not to proceed with an oral hearing. I would maintain that such a decision would be utterly irrational and damaging to the credibility of the judiciary but I would abide by such a decision if freshly made. But at least an appeal to the SCA would correct the deeply conservative and untransformed reasoning and application of outdated legal principles used by the High Court, which would be a good thing for the legal transformation of South Africa.
Surely both supporters of the JSC decision and those who — like FUL – would have liked to see the JSC actually making a finding on whether it was Hlophe JP or some judges of the Constitutional Court who were lying through their teeth, would agree that establishing a more progressive jurisprudence regarding the decision making standards employed by a constitutional body like the JSC is more important than the temporary setback for either Hlophe or some of the judges of the Constitutional Court that might result from this decision being overturned?
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