One of the strong themes of the International Association of Judicial Officers' Africa region conference was that judicial officers should join professional associations. This call came after decades in which judicial leaders have strongly advised against such associations, and at a time when they are still regarded with some suspicion in top judicial circles. Throughout the conference, speakers stressed the importance of such associations for judicial officers, not just in relation to conditions of employment, but also in helping maintain the rule of law.
First indication that judicial associations would become a major issue at the conference emerged with the formal opening: the president of the Judicial Officers Association of SA (Joasa) encouraged judicial officers, both judges and magistrates, to disregard "negative myths" about judicial associations, and join up. Daniel Thulare, who is also Cape Town's Chief Magistrate, was addressing a conference of the Africa region of the International Association of Judges (IAJ) in Cape Town, attended by judicial officers from 23 African countries.
During the opening session Thulare said there were misperceptions about judicial associations, such as that they undermined judicial ethics and conduct. There seemed to be some concern that if judicial officers were involved in an association it would reduce the trust that society had in the judiciary. He differed with that view, and quoted a parliamentary debate in Spain in which it was said that denying judges the right to belong to a union was 'incompatible with the substantial mission of the judge, namely the protection of people's fundamental rights and liberties.' In terms of this view, belonging to a union would not be a danger to judicial ethics but was rather a 'powerful means to help the judiciary in its core mission'.
In the case of Joasa, the association hosting the conference, its aims were to promote the independence, strength and coherence of the judiciary. It provided guidance to judicial officers and helped improve their skills. But above all its aim was to 'promote and maintain the rule of law, as well as the dignity and the status of the office of judiciary officers'.
During 2003, Joasa had overseen the transition of all South African magistrates from civil servants to judicial officers, Thulare said. However, Joasa was still struggling to 'dismantle apartheid's stubborn monument and structural flaw of having judicial officers, magistrates, not being recognised as part of the judiciary', he added. 'In this struggle we cannot rely on our leaders, including our appointed judicial leadership,' he said. Without the strength and sense of common purpose that membership of an organisation can bring, it would often not be possible for the views of judicial officers to be heard, 'even on the most important issues'. Judicial associations played a crucial role in giving judicial officers a voice on central issues such as independence. It also helped facilitate professional development and, in his view, membership should be encouraged by Chief Justices, judicial heads, national departments, the legislature and the executive.At this point, the problem of the safety of judicial officers emerged again. Thulare gave the example of magistrates in the Western Cape who had to deal with gangsters in their courts. They also had to travel to and from work on trains that were used by opposing gangs, all of which created a serious security problem. With the backing of the Africa regional group of the IAJ, Joasa had lobbied for transport to be seen by the authorities as essential for magistrates to do their work safely and effectively. These interventions were ultimately successful and led to transport allowances for magistrates.