Threats to the independence of judiciary ‘a thing of the past’

2011-07-11 07:20

Threats to the independence of the judiciary are a thing of the past, Supreme Court of Appeal president Judge Lex Mpati said yesterday.

“It seems that threats to the independence of the judiciary, which were manifest from certain regrettable skirmishes in the past between the judiciary and the executive branch of government, are a thing of the past, hopefully for good,” he said at the Access to Justice conference.

“As much as the judiciary needs to be independent from outside sources, that does not mean that judges should be free to behave as they please.”

Mpati stressed that judges were not above the law, and that they must avoid impropriety in “all their activities”.

Delegates heard that the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Amendment Act, which came into operation last year, provides for the establishment of a Judicial Conduct Complaints Committee headed by Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo to deal with complaints brought by the public against judges.

“The act also introduces an enforceable code of judicial conduct, which will guide judges on the important question of professional ethics,” he said.

The Code of Judicial Conduct has already been drafted but awaits parliamentary approval. This is aimed at ensuring that the integrity of the judiciary is maintained.

Mpati said judges were required to be fair as their decisions affected the rights of individuals.
“And if they want to be independent enforcers or guardians of the rule of law, judges must be incorruptible.”

Quoting his predecessor, Justice Craig Howie, he said: “Judges owe no favours, they must never do, and equally important the public must never think they do.”

He said issues before a judge must be decided without concern for the popularity of the decision, and without regard to possible criticism.

“But judicial independence may be undermined and the integrity of the judiciary dented because of internal weakness,” said Mpati.

“Judges cannot call on their independence as a defence against criticism for judgments unduly delayed, or poorly written. Litigants come to court in the belief that their disputes will be resolved.”

He said it was “simply unfair” and unacceptable for litigants to be kept waiting an “inordinately long time” for a judgment.

Mpati said the JSC had in the recent past received a number of complaints against certain judges for failure to deliver judgments.

In some cases, judgments had been outstanding for more than three years.

“Such conduct can only be destructive of the integrity of the judiciary and thus of any confidence the public might have had in it.

“I should mention that recesses are not for going on holiday. They are primarily for catching up on outstanding judgments.”

He said delivering judgments timeously was part of being accountable.

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