Top legal stories of 2013

2013-12-25 06:00

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Legal reporter Charl du Plessis selects this year’s legal stories that mattered.

1. Oscar Pistorius murder case

When news broke that Oscar Pistorius had been arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, it thrust the South African criminal justice system into the international spotlight.

Pistorius’ brief appearances in the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court, ahead of the main trial, saw such unprecedented levels of media interest that the department of justice was forced to issue accreditation to journalists, as well as set up a video and audio link in an adjacent court to accommodate all the journalists.

While Pistorius’ trial is unlikely to set any major legal precedents, his celebrity status has focused the attention of audiences on court proceedings.

The trial is set down for March next year.

See our special report here.

2. The spy tapes saga

The DA’s ongoing court battle to get its hands on transcripts of the so-called “spy tapes”, that got President Jacob Zuma off the hook on serious fraud and corruption charges, have remained a topical issue in 2013.

While the DA’s case is about overturning acting NPA head Mokotedi Mpshe’s 2009 decision to drop corruption charges against Zuma, the legal contest has remained centred on whether the tapes form part of the record the NPA has to file.

Judge Rammaka Mathopo ruled the spy tapes were indeed part of the record the NPA needed to file and ordered their release, but Zuma has since appealed their release.

Reluctance on the part of former acting NPA head Nomgcobo Jiba to release the tapes sparked a flurry of conspiracy theories about whether the tapes really existed.

The case continues in the Supreme Court of Appeal next year.

Read: Zuma’s spy tapes U-turn

3. The Marikana Commission of Inquiry

The massacre of 34 striking mine workers at Marikana during a violent strike last year was one of the darkest moments in South Africa’s post-democratic history.

The Farlam commission of inquiry, meant to get to the bottom of the deaths of the 46 people who had died during the wildcat strikes, has remained in the headlines in 2013.

The case thrust the the cost of legal representation for the poor into the spotlight, with Advocate Dali Mpofu, representing wounded and arrested miners, being forced to turn to the courts to secure state funding for his clients’ representation at Marikana.

There was also further outrage when evidence leaders at the commission accused police of lying to the commission about events surrounding the day of the shooting.

4. The Richard Mdluli saga

The legal fallout over suspended crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli continued to play out in a variety of different legal settings this year.

Mdluli famously offered to be of assistance to President Jacob Zuma ahead of the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference last year.

In September this year, Judge John Murphy, of the North Gauteng High Court, delivered a scathing judgment in which he overturned the decision by the NPA to drop two sets of criminal charges against Mdluli, as well as the decision to overturn disciplinary charges against Mdluli.

This case was brought to court by Freedom Under Law.

The NPA and the police have since appealed the decision, but not before there was further controversy and outrage over the fact that Murphy had apparently referred to Advocate William Mokhari as an “idiot” in chambers during the application for leave to appeal.

This was after the two had been at loggerheads over a particular point in court.

Read: Mdluli judge: How dare you say that to me?

5. Glynnis Breytenbach cleared of all disciplinary charges

In May, senior prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach was cleared by the NPA of all 15 disciplinary charges against her.

This gave some credence to Breytenbach’s claim that she had been suspended from her job in an attempt to protect Mdluli from prosecution.

But soon thereafter, the NPA, at the time still headed by acting NPA head Nomgcobo Jiba, announced it would be taking the finding of its own disciplinary hearing on review to the Labour Court.

It also emerged the NPA had new charges it was investigating against Breytenbach, including an allegation that she was an Israeli spy, something she has vehemently denied.

Read: NPA: Breytenbach is a spy

6. The Julius Malema corruption trial

Julius Malema made several appearances in court in the corruption case he faces in relation to the indirect benefit his Ratanang Family Trust allegedly received from a R52-million contract awarded by the Limpopo Department of Roads and Transport.

The former ANC Youth League leader, and current leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has maintained he is being persecuted by his political adversaries, especially those in government.

Malema has made submissions to the NPA as to why charges against him should be dropped.

If the NPA rejects Malema’s representations, the trial against him will only go ahead in September next year, allowing him to participate in the elections.

7. The Judicial Service Commission

The spotlight of unfavourable media attention was again on the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) earlier this year when it passed over highly respected advocate Jeremy Gauntlett for appointment as a judge for the fifth time.

Shortly thereafter, Advocate Izak Smuts, a representative of the advocates’ profession on the JSC, resigned from his position after a furore over a discussion document in which he criticised the way the JSC appointed judges.

The Helen Suzman Foundation also launched a court case aimed at getting clarification on the role merit and transformation should play in the appointment of judges.

Read: ‘Arrogant’ Gauntlett fails to make the cut

8. The Legal Practice Bill

The Legal Practice Bill was passed by the National Assembly in 2013 despite massive opposition from the legal profession.

Parliamentary submissions on the bill laid bare deep rifts among both attorneys and advocates over the regulation and transformation of the legal profession.

The General Council of the Bar, in particular, has maintained the bill in its current form would be a death-knell to the advocates profession.

The bill has now been sent to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence, but a challenge of its constitutionality seems likely.

Read: Legal Practice Bill divides profession

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