/ 5 August 2011

Where the new chief justice will pick up

When Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo finishes his term in office this month, he will leave behind several key projects in various states of completion.

But those in the justice sector say it will not be difficult to pick up where Ngcobo left off. His unfinished projects — which he initiated when he came into office in 2009 — cover three major areas: improving access to justice, creating an office of the chief justice and implementing a judicial conduct and discipline code for judges.

Office of the chief justice
Ngcobo’s plan to create an office of the chief justice would give judges final responsibility over the running of the judiciary. At present judges have no say over the administration of the court, which is overseen by the department of justice and constitutional development. It administers everything from staff to leave for the registrars as well as cleaners.

Some are critical of the office of the chief justice taking over these responsibilities, according to constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos. “They say it is like turning the chief justice’s office into an administration office and [it] operating as a ministry.”

Access to justice
Not long before withdrawing his acceptance of an extended term, Ngcobo held a conference for top-level government and legal minds on the need for improved access to justice for the general population. He wanted to provide people with access to the Constitutional Court, not just for constitutional matters but for anything ranging from criminal to labour law. If passed, his 17th Constitutional Amendment Bill and the Superior Courts Bill would make the Constitutional Court the final court for all matters ranging from tax law to divorce cases.

But some advocates say the Constitutional Court does not have the capacity to handle this. Nichola de Havilland, director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, told the hearings that Constitutional Court judges were appointed for their ability to decide on constitutional matters and they would now be required to adjudicate matters involving questions of common and commercial law, for which they might not be suited.

Judges’ discipline and conduct
Ngcobo has also been spearheading a draft judicial code of conduct that has been circulating for two years. “The draft spells out the assumptions that underlie how judges should behave,” said De Vos. “It is a code of ethics that until now has been assumed and not written down.”

Along with this code, the new chief justice will also have to implement the amendments to the Judicial Service Commission Act, which sets up the procedures through which judges are disciplined.

President Jacob Zuma has nominated Constitutional Court judge Mogoeng Mogoeng as the new Chief Justice. For more news on the controversy surrounding the appointment click here.