PMB lawyers grilled by JSC

2008-10-15 00:00

Cape Town - Two Pietermaritzburg men were among 10 people interviewed by the Judicial Services Commision here yesterday for five vacancies as judges in the Natal Provincial Division.

Bhekisisa Jerome Mnguni, an attorney with the firm Tomlinson Mnguni James and Advocate Trevor Gorven SC both appeared before the panel chaired by Chief Justice Pius Langa.

The aspiring judges were drilled on their work experience, the qualities they might bring to the job and on whether they have contributed to transformation in South Africa.

Veteran struggle advocate George Bizos told candidates that people who aspire to become judges should have shown some concern for society as a whole, for instance, by taking part in the liberation of the country.

Mnguni, who worked as an assistant manager in a hardware store in Nongoma while studying for his legal degree, told the commission he has worked several sessions as an acting judge since 2007.

In his interview, Mnguni, who acts regularly for the Road Accident Fund, was asked for his opinion on why many RAF matters are only settled on the day they get to court and why these matters clog the court roll.

He was also asked to comment on whether he believes it is deliberate policy of the fund and its attorneys not to settle claims when they should be settled.

Mnguni said he generally receives instructions “very late” in RAF matters.

“In our firm, we always do things in time. The difficulty with the fund is that we do not get instructions in time. For instance, we have a matter in court next Monday, but our office only received the file on Monday.

“That is the difficulty. You rely on clients’ instructions and you cannot do anything unless you have instructions in a matter. At the end of the day, you are in their hands.”

Asked what can be done to correct the situation with the RAF, Mnguni said he believed the fund should recruit more legally qualified people to their ranks. “In most cases, they don’t have appropriate legal skills.

The impression created is that they do not care about the costs in litigating the matter which I think is a big problem. It results in unnecessary costs.”

Asked whether he thought that black lawyers are not given access to “good” and complex work, resulting in cases not being reportable, Mnguni said he believes this is the case.

He said although only two of his cases were reported during his 14 years in practise, he believed these two cases were important.

Advocate Trevor Gorven SC, also of Pietermaritzburg, said if chosen as a judge, he would hope to add to the sense of humanity on the bench.

He said he would, as a judge, work to ensure that people who come before the Natal Provincial Division are given a proper, sympathetic hearing, especially those who might not have money to be represented.

The people who want to present civil cases but who do not have legal representation are often the most vulnerable, such as people facing eviction orders from their home, Gorven added. “Those people often don’t have great educational resources to bring to bear on a court case.”

Gorven said he would hope, as a judge, to contribute the experience he has derived over the years and the ability to deal with legal matters expeditiously.

Adv Aslam Motala, another candidate, was drilled on perceptions that his community outreach activities are confined to matters relating to his own religious group, Islam.

Motala said this perception is not correct and that the organisation, the Orient Old Boys, to which he has belonged for 18 years, extends poverty relief assistance to the community at large, despite the fact that most of its members are of the Islamic faith.

Responding to a comment by KZN Judge President Vuka Tshabalala that if selected he would be the second Muslim on the KZN bench, Motala said: “That is not the ticket on which I have come to this commission. I have come as an advocate with the intention of administering justice in accordance with the Constitution and the law.”

Ms Esther Steyn, (a former law lecturer and commissioner in the Jali Commission to investigate corruption in prisons) told the commission her three-and-a-half-years of experience with the Jali Commission - which covered a range of matters from fraud to labour law to sexual harrassment and procurement stand her in good stead to work as a judge. She has also done a nine month stint as an acting judge.

She said as a staunch believer in teaching students social responsibility, she spearheaded the introduction of community service for the law students she lectured - a service which is now part of the curriculum.

Another candidate, Ms F.E. Mokgohloa said her appointment as a judge would address issues of representivity, because there are no black female judges on the KZN bench.

“My appointment would also address the ratio between male and female judges on the bench,” Mokgohloa said.

Durban advocate Malcolm Wallis said after 35 years at the bar, it would be a “new challenge and an opportunity to serve in a different way” to be a judge.

Asked what he thinks are the greatest challenges facing the judiciary, Wallis said South Africa’s courts are under increasing pressures. “It is wrong that we are running courts on acting judges. The time has come to review the way in which South Africa’s courts function,” he said.

He added that there does not seem to be an acceptance of the role of the judiciary in society. it is wrong we are running courts on acting judges. we need to address the functioning. the time has come to review the way in which our courts function.

Asked about the role of judges, Wallis said: “It is not the role of a judge to set about bringing about changes in society. Your function is narrower than that. A judges function is to decide the case before him.

When judges lose clarity about their judicial role and start to stray into the social arena, there can be problems.”

The other people interviewed for the position were Advocate G. Lopes SC, Mr SS Luthuli, Mrs Soma Naidoo, (who has been head of the Family Court in Durban since 2005) and Mr Barry Skinner.

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