Appointment of judges 'not entirely transparent'

The process of appointing judges is not entirely transparent, the second Judicial Conference of South Africa heard in Pretoria on Tuesday.

“The only criticism that I have, or rather that I have come across, is that although the process of interviewing candidates for judicial appointments is open to the public and the media, the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) deliberations on whether a particular candidate is suitable or not are held behind closed doors,” said president of the Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Lex Mpati.

“Thus the argument goes that the process is not entirely transparent.”

Mpati was speaking on independence of the judiciary at the gathering of the judicial community at the Kieviets Kroon Conference Centre outside Pretoria.

Citing late Constitutional Court chief justice Ismail Mohamed, Mpati said: “The culture of judicial independence must be sustained with a process of appointment to the bench which is fair, transparent and reasonable and in which judicial input is substantial and manifest.”

Mpati acknowledged that South Africa’s judiciary was independent, and this was assured by the Constitution, which vested the judicial authority of the country in the courts, and which said the courts were independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law.

However, he added a personal criticism of the system of appointing judges, saying there were too few judges on the JSC.

“It [JSC] consists of 23 members, of whom only three are judges.

“That number becomes four out of a total of 25 when a judge is to be appointed to a specific high court,” he said.

The JSC is a body tasked with interviewing candidates for all judicial appointments. The president, as head of the executive, makes all judicial appointments, and does so with the advice of the JSC in the case of high court judges.

The judges gathered for the four-day conference where they are discussing issues related to the judiciary, including its independence, accountability, enhancing access to justice and the concept of a single judiciary for South Africa.

President Jacob Zuma opened the conference on a high note on Monday by proclaiming the importance of an independent judiciary.

Mpati was heartened by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe telling judges during a closed session of the conference on Monday that his department would not seek a constitutional amendment where it was not necessary.—Sapa

Natasha Marrian

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