Who is our new Judge President?

2011-11-23 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL’S new Judge President Chiman Patel is an animal lover who grew up in humble surroundings.

He speaks his native language, Gujerati, as well as Hindi and English fluently and, having spent many years living in London, his favourite holiday playgrounds are that city as well as Europe and India.

He says that he wanted to study speech and drama, but his parents wouldn’t hear of it. Today he is spellbound by the real drama which unfolds daily in the province’s courtrooms.

“I thought the law was close enough to speech and drama so I chose that instead,” he says smiling, explaining that his favourite character while growing up was Perry Mason, the fictional attorney in books by Erle Stanley Gardner which became a major television series.

Judge Patel was and still is an avid reader, although today his reading is mostly confined to work. On weekends he loves the escapism of good cinema and finds gyming enormously relaxing.

He is a man of compassionate and gentle disposition, a judge of great dignity. In the words of the Society of Advocates of KwaZulu-Natal, he is “highly respected for his unquestionable integrity and industry”.

He’s not afraid of constructive criticism, and says judges are triers of fact but are also human beings and as such, fallible. “That is why we have the appeal mechanism. Sometimes you may get it wrong.”

However, in 12 years only about “four or five” of Patel’s judgments have been overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Judge Patel has also moved on from the public furore caused by remarks made by Judge Isaac Madondo (to the effect that he felt the job should not go to an Indian because they were not as disadvantaged as Africans), and has accepted Madondo’s statement that he had not intended his remarks to be understood in the way they were interpreted.

“It hasn’t affected my working relationship with him at all,” he said, adding, however, that “everyone is understood by the words they use, and that is why one must be guarded in the use of words”.

Ongoing and “real” transformation of the Bench is very much on Judge Patel’s agenda, and he hopes to reach out to a huge pool of untapped talent among African lawyers in KZN who have thus far not expressed interest in becoming judges, mainly due to their lucrative practices. He also believes there is room for more women judges.

Judge Patel was born in Durban on November 22, 1947, and is no stranger to poverty.

“My parents [Ruxmani and Narotam Patel] came from India so I am a first-generation South African.”

His father worked as a grocer’s attendant in Verulam and later had a café. His mother didn’t know any English when she first arrived in this country. His father was an avid reader and despite lack of schooling “could do books up to trial balance”.

“He encouraged us to read and would always engage us in debate.

“We were four families sharing a cottage but I was always happy. I didn’t miss the material things and I never felt deprived. There was always lots of love and lots of people I called aunts and uncles.”

Judge Patel has three sisters and a brother, none of whom are lawyers, although his brother’s son is a practising advocate in Durban.

The judge admits he always did well at school and his father had wanted him to read medicine, but he did not want to follow that path. He attended Sastri College in Durban. During his primary-school years, he attended three schools daily to learn English, Gujerati and Hindi.

Judge Patel describes himself as an animal lover and he has a special relationship with his tabby cat Bella, who “adopted” him two years ago.

Having chosen him as her keeper, Bella moved into his home uninvited, the only snag was that at the time she had a different owner.

“I tried to seal off my house but she found her way in through the rafters. Eventually, I had to appoint an attorney to represent me and negotiate a price with the owner ... at a cost of a few thousand rand,” he laughs.

JUDGE Patel holds B.Juris and LLB degrees from the University of South Africa and an LLM degree from the University of London, Kings College. In 1975, he became a barrister at law of Lincoln’s Inn. Between September 1977 and December 1979, he was a law lecturer at the Swaziland campus of the University of Botswana and Swaziland; from February 1980 to December 1987 he was senior lecturer in the law faculty of the University of Natal, Durban; and between October 1987 and October 1999, was a member of the Society of Advocates in KZN. He took silk in 1997.

Judge Patel was appointed a judge of the KZN High Court in November 1999, and became Acting Judge President on March 9 this year.

In submissions to the Judicial Services Commission, the KZN Society of Advocates said law reports reveal Judge Patel has been “prolific in producing judgments of a high calibre” in various fields of law including labour law, competition law and constitutional law.

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