/ 7 April 2022

JSC gives nod to seasoned Free State advocate Ilse van Rhyn

Advocate Ilse Van Rhyn

The Judicial Service Commission (JSC) has recommended advocate Ilse Van Rhyn for appointment to the Free State high court, in a rare instance of an advocate who elected not to take silk ascending to the bench.

Van Rhyn faced questions from commissioners in her interview with the JSC on Thursday on her decision not to apply for senior status, despite the fact that she first joined the bar in the early nineties after working as an attorney, with Chief Justice Raymond Zondo being the first to raise the point. 

Van Rhyn replied that the tradition at the bar was that the most senior of the junior members of the bar were the first to apply for the status. Currently she was 13th in line, if this were to be respected, though this was not always the case.

As a result, she said: “I have not been under pressure to take silk.”

But she also defended her choice not to apply by saying failing to take silk was “not like going to school and never reaching grade 12”.

However, successfully applying had an effect not only on the nature of one’s work, but on the fees involved, with the figures commanded rising steeply. She added that she had dealt with complex matters regardless.

“It depends on your practice. I am actually doing senior work now.” 

In an interview with the JSC for the Free State division in 2019, Van Rhyn had told how she had at one point been forced to leave the bar as a young advocate because she had mainly worked for the Legal Aid Board, who neglected to pay her for more than a year. It forced her into debt and affected her confidence, she said.

She returned and has since been a member of the Free State bar for 18 years. 

Advocate Jennifer Cane said it seemed that Van Rhyn were ignorant of the process in the Free State to qualify for silk status — because two of those below her on the list have applied — and did not want to apply. Moreover, she seemed to consider silk as no more than “a long-service reward”.

Van Rhyn replied that her choice had been influenced by the fact that she had regularly acted as a judge since 2018 for an average of two terms annually, with the result that for up to half the year, she was not able to take briefs.

“My work at the bar has diminished since my appointment as acting judge,” she said.

”So, for six months a year, my door is closed, and my light is off, so I’ve been taking that into consideration.”

Zondo said she was the second candidate to be interviewed on the day who had waited more than two decades to take silk, whereas he knew of lawyers who had done so after 11 or even, in one instance, seven years.

“So when I look at 25, 27 years, it just seems strange.”

Advocate Khameshni Pillay, the new representative of Advocates for Transformation on the JSC, faulted Van Rhyn for not taking juniors into her practice as a way of transferring skills. She raised a reported case where Van Rhyn was briefed by the bar council to appear pro bono and asked why she did not brief a junior.

“It wasn’t that complex that I even felt the need to ask a silk to appear with me in that matter, because that would have been more appropriate to ask a silk to lead me in the matter, not another junior,” the candidate replied.

Van Rhyn conceded that she had never instructed juniors in her practice, because the decision also depended on client instructions and cost considerations. Pillay commented that in the cited case this did not apply as the brief was pro bono and that she found the choice hard to comprehend given the difficulty young female black lawyers faced in the Free State to gain experience.

“I understand … but it was on short notice, I had only a few days to prepare for the matter and then appear in court.”

Pillay tried to fault one of Van Rhyn’s rulings but the advocate ably defended her reasoning.

Two of Van Rhyn’s judgments have been reported. In her first acting term, she sentenced three suspected members of the members of the Bloemfontein gang Born to Kill to three life sentences each for the murder of three alleged rival gang members, the Maroma Gang.