Top judge pleads for protection of judicial officers

The safety of judicial officers was a recurring theme during the conference of the International Association of Judicial Officers' Africa region. These dangers - even in court - were starkly illustrated just as the conference was ending: a fight broke out between members of rival gangs in the corridors of the Johannesburg magistrates court. Members of the public tried to hide or run away, and eye-witnesses said only the quick intervention of police prevented serious injury. In his welcome speech at the opening dinner of the conference, the Judge President of the Western Cape, host province of the event, raised the safety issue for what would be the first - though not the last - time during the five-day event.

Judge President of the Western Cape high court, Judge John Hlophe, has made a plea for greater protection and security of judicial officers. Speaking at the opening function of the Africa region of the International Association of Judges (IAJ) conference in Cape Town, he said judges and magistrates were no less vulnerable than politicians. An inadequate or complete lack of security for judicial officers in court and at home was “a huge area of concern” and there had been “numerous incidents” where the lives of judicial officers had been threatened. He also listed magistrates who had been killed, wounded and threatened in the line of duty, as well as incidents that had taken place in court as a result of inadequate security, including the recent lockdown of the high court when judgment was passed by a judicial officer whose life had been threatened.

The  warning proved timely: just days later, a major battle between rival gangs broke out in corridors of the Johannesburg magistrates court as two opposing gang leaders were standing trial for murder in separate courts.  

The conference, hosted by the Judicial Officers Association of South Africa (Joasa), was attended by judicial officers (judges and magistrates) from 23 African countries. Their focus was on safeguarding the independence and conditions of service of judicial officers. A special concern within those topics was the need to ensure security of tenure and to maintain conditions of service and constitutionally-mandated protection for the selection and appointment of judicial officers.

During the opening dinner, Judge Hlophe and Daniel Thulare, the president of Joasa, made clear their concern that South Africa should have a “single judiciary”. Judge Hlophe said the institutional independence of the SA judiciary – as opposed to the magistracy – was clear: judges were independent in that they fell under the Office of the Chief Justice, created relatively recently to take judges out of the government’s Department of Justice. Magistrates, on the other hand, still fell under the Department of Justice, creating what Judge Hlophe called an administrative “nightmare”, with two sets of judicial officers, one under the Chief Justice and the other under the Department of Justice and he hoped “all judicial officers” would soon fall under the Chief Justice.

As for judicial independence and working conditions in the broader sense, he urged that security of judicial officers and their support staff should be addressed without delay. Some courts were “over-resourced” compared to others, so that each member of the Constitutional Court had three law researchers whereas the 35 judges of the high court in the Western Cape shared just five researchers between them.

Judges’ pay would also have an impact on transformation, he warned. To attract good lawyers to the bench, “judges must be well paid”, but as long as the budget came from central government politicians would continue to get the “lion’s share”, while “we get the hyena’s share”, he quipped.

By contrast, political analyst Somadoda Fikeni warned against judicial officers being “tempted”, saying they should not be “obsessed” by material things. “If every day you are thinking (about) money and material things that is crass materialism and opens you to temptation.”

In a pre-conference interview, Tulare said the Africa region conference report would be presented at the IAJ meeting in Kazakhstan during September, after which programmes for lobbying on the various issues identified across all the continents would be drawn up. He anticipated that one of the issues that would emerge during this week was the difficult situation in Lesotho where magistrates are on strike, the chief justice has been suspended and the highest court is not sitting.