Open justice

2009-03-31 00:00

IT is a basic principle of democracy that the administration of justice needs to be seen to be done. There are, of course, situations such as evidence given by a minor in a rape trial, where proceedings in camera are both desirable and, indeed, prescribed. But

the exceptions simply reinforce the general principle that respect for the law requires that the administration of justice must be a public business to which the media and individual members of the public who might be interested have unrestricted access.

It is therefore disquieting that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) apparently wishes to keep closed its inquiry into complaints involving the country’s top Constitutional Court judges and the Western Cape Judge President John Hlope. It is to be hoped that the application of media groups and the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) for access will be upheld.

Hlope is a controversial figure. In 2006 he allegedly received R10 000 per month as a consultant for asset management company Oasis despite the fact that judges are not allowed to earn money apart from their salaries. He also allegedly gave the same company permission to sue Judge Siraj Desai (which only he could do). Meanwhile Hlope himself is being sued for damages by an American academic whom he is alleged to have defamed. However, the most serious charge against him — and the one which lies behind the present inquiry — is that he tried to influence Justice Bess Nkabinde and Acting Justice Chris Jafta of the Constitutional Court in a matter relating to ANC leader Jacob Zuma. The fact that it was Zuma instead of some unknown individual means that the whole issue has become highly politicised.

Whether the inquiry will begin tomorrow, as planned, is not certain. The Supreme Court of Appeal has yet to hand down judgment on last week’s appeal by the Constitutional Court justices contesting a Johannesburg High Court finding that they had infringed Hlope’s right to dignity and equal treatment when they issued a statement to the media before first seeking his representations. Whether there is a delay or not, however, it is important that the principle of open justice be upheld, both because it is required by the Constitution and also because of the major judicial figures involved.

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