Lockdown: Recommended that acting judge who blasted government on Facebook be recalled

2020-05-19 11:01

The Gauteng Department of Justice on Monday recommended that the appointment of advocate Gillian Benson as an acting judge from 8 June be revoked following a furore regarding comments she made on Facebook criticising government over its Covid-19 lockdown regulations.

News24 reported on Monday that Benson said she could not afford to do further pro bono work (without payment) as an acting judge as the Covid-19 lockdown had severely affected her income.

Benson earlier took to social media platform Facebook to voice her displeasure in a post in which she wrote: "F***k you South Africa. F***k you".

The now-deleted post reportedly also contained a response by Benson to a comment in which she said: "Ya. But after I said F***k you SA, I had people messaging me to ask why I'm angry. Hahahahaha. And still we love Cyril and his goons."

Benson told News24 that she is going through a divorce and was upset about regulations issued by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the time.

The regulations state that parents sharing responsibilities can share their children provided there is a court order allowing them to do so or where there is an agreement or parenting plan that is registered with a family advocate.

Comment made in personal capacity

"It was a comment in my personal capacity at the time – it had nothing to do with work," Benson said. "I certainly wasn't an acting judge at the time."

She denied that she had been "asked to step down" from the Bench or that her appointment as an acting judge had been "revoked".

"I called [Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo] and told him what was going on. But I can't step down from a position I don't hold. I'm not a full-time acting judge, I'm just an advocate."

Benson told News24 she was not an acting judge who was appointed for a specific term, but instead sat on the Bench on an ad hoc and pro bono basis.

READ | Advocate who blasted 'Cyril and his goons' over lockdown restrictions 'not asked to step down'

"I always do one pro bono stint per term. You get called on the morning of your appointment date, in this case 8 June, you sit for five days and then you're not a judge anymore. This is a voluntary service some advocates perform because of backlogs.

"One of the reasons I requested that I don't act as a judge from 8 June was that I can't afford to do pro bono work for a week. The last time I volunteered was in February, before the lockdown. But now I can no longer work for a week with no income. The judiciary has taken no issue with my [Facebook] posts."

Nathi Mncube, spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Justice, has since indicated in a WhatsApp message that Mlambo was "alerted to the utterances allegedly posted on Benson's timeline on Facebook".

Agreed to request appointment be revoked

"He immediately discussed the matter with her, and both agreed that it will be in the best interest of all concerned to have her acting appointment revoked. Consequently, she will not be returning to act on 8 June.

"The acting judges are appointed to act for a certain period. The acting stint ends when the period ends or when all the partly heard matters the acting judge was handling have been finalised.

"Benson's acting stint came to an end in February and [she] got appointed to act again from 8 June. She is right to say she is currently not a judge, but she would have been had the judge president not asked the [Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola] to revoke her appointment."

Mncube said a letter from Mlambo to Lamola was sent on Monday morning, and had not reached the minister when News24 approached him for comment. The letter has since been received, said Mncube.

"However, the minister has not yet responded to the judge president's letter to officially revoke her appointment. Until Sunday, she was still going to act as a judge from 8 June, unless she had intended to communicate her intention to step down," Mncube told News24.

"But when the judge president became aware of [the Facebook post], there was no decision – not from her side or from the judge president. They had an engagement and Mlambo said, because of what happened, he was going to request that the minister revoke Benson's appointment as it was in the best interest, and she agreed."

'Entitled to criticise'

Benson said in a statement: "I may be an advocate. I may have acted previously as a judge. But I remain a human being first and foremost. And I remain entitled to criticise any legislative measures implemented which I do not agree with.

"There are millions of South Africans expressing their displeasure right now at these regulations. I will not apologise for expressing my own view and will continue to do so.

"The choice of adjectives and nouns that I chose may have been unfortunate, but when an irrational regulation with no basis whatsoever and clearly with no thought as to the best interests of parents and children, hinders my contact with my own child, I will remain upset and deeply so. Criticism of choice of language should not be used as a tool to stifle dissent."

Benson's attorney, Ian Levitt, told News24 on Monday that reports that her position as an acting judge had been revoked would be referred to the Press Ombudsman and that the circumstances relating to the complaint would be ventilated there.

"We will be happy for the public to have full access to the process. We can't pre-empt the complaint or the adjudication thereof until it has been ruled upon."

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Read more on:    johannesburg  |  coronavirus  |  judiciary  |  lockdown  |  social media
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