Zuma signs disputed new courts bill into law

2013-08-14 00:00

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma yesterday signed the Superior Courts Bill into law. The presidency said in a statement the new act would start “a new chapter in our Superior Courts, which are still largely structured in accordance with the Supreme Court Act of 1959 passed early on during apartheid rule”.

“The Superior Courts Act now provides a legislative framework for the re-organisation and rationalisation of the structures of the High Court and their jurisdictional areas with a view primarily to enhance equal access to justice,” the statement read.

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj said Zuma will soon announce when the new act will become effective.

Among the changes to the existing justice system, the new act will allow the appeal court to become a “down-graded roving” court that can hear appeal cases outside Bloemfontein.

Former appeal judge Louis Harms yesterday commented about this and other changes, saying that the new act was not well thought through.

The Constitutional Court will also in future consider any appeal application, even if the appeal does not relate to a constitutional issue. The new act also makes the Constitutional Court the highest court in the country on all aspects of the law.

Until the new law comes into effect, the appeal court is the highest court in the country on any legal issues in common law.

Professor Tom Coetzee, a legal expert from Potchefstroom, said both courts will have to change their names. “The Constitutional Court will not longer hear just constitutional cases and is therefore not a constitutional court. The Supreme Court of Appeal is also no longer the supreme court of appeal — that is now the constitutional court.”

The office of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is now a “department” similar to a state department.

Maharaj said this proved the government’s commitment to the independence of the courts.

All magistrates will in future be under the control of the judge president of the provincial high court in which they work. Magistrates are currently managed by regional court presidents and chief magistrates.

The new act recognises two new provincial divisions of the high court in Limpopo and in Mpumalanga. This brings to an end the decade-long situation which saw these two provinces having to turn to the high court in Pretoria.

Maharaj said construction of the two new courts is progressing well.

Regarding roving appeal judges, a senior judge who wanted to remain anonymous said it was a recipe for logistical chaos and would probably never be put into practice. He said the cost to transport and accommodate the roving judges would cost the taxpayer millions of rands.

Coetzee said from the new act it was clear that the appeal court has been downgraded to just another court of appeal and asked it there was any reason for this extremely valuable court to continue.

He said he doubted if all the aspects the new act could be implemented in practical terms. “I suspect many of the terms of the new act will remain just words on paper,” Coetzee said.

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