Heads of Courts to meet in Sun City for three-day Judges Conference

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. Picture: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 4, 2023


Chief Justice Raymond Zondo will lead a delegation of the Heads of Courts as they are set to meet at Sun City for the Judges’ Conference, which is a forum for members of the judiciary to meet and discuss matters about their interest to the Judiciary in relation to its constitutional role and mandate.

This year, the Heads of Courts meets under the under the theme: ‘Towards a single, effective and fully independent Judiciary’.

The Heads of Courts include the top presiding officers from the 10 High Court divisions, the Labour and Labour Appeal Court, Supreme Court of Appeal, Electoral Court, Land Claims Court, Competition Appeal Court, the Constitutional Court and the Magistrate’s Courts.

The Judges’ conference will take place from Tuesday to Thursday, with the chief justice expected to brief members of the media on Tuesday and again on Thursday at the closing of the conference.

“The Judges’ Conference, which has been convened by the Chief Justice with the support of the Heads of Court, will discuss matters of interest to the Judiciary in relation to its constitutional role and mandate, under the theme: “Towards a single, effective and fully independent Judiciary,” said a note from the Office of the Chief Justice.

“In line with this theme, one of the purposes of the 2023 Judges’ Conference is to provide Judges and Magistrates with a platform to, among others, reflect on Judicial independence, as well as discuss issues pertaining to efficiencies in the court system, resourcing and capacitation of the Judiciary, as well as judicial accountability, integrity and ethical conduct of Judicial Officers (Magistrates and Judges).”

Recently in an interview with news broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, the chief justice Zondo was criticised for potentially entering the political arena when he said former president Jacob Zuma must be prosecuted by the National Prosecuting Authority.

Zondo had also recently made other alarming remarks about the non-action in prosecuting matters arising from the State Capture Commission he presided over.

The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) said Zondo’s remarks were ill-advised and unfortunate.

Casac executive secretary Lawson Naidoo said judges were expected to stay clear of political controversy and everyday partisan politics and to carry out their judicial function impartially and without fear or favour.

“The Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to ‘not publicly comment on the merits of any case pending before, or determined by, that judge or any other court’ and to ‘not express views in a manner which may undermine the standing and integrity of the judiciary’,” said Naidoo.

“Casac believes that the Chief Justice's remarks in the interview crossed the boundaries of acceptable speech by judges and should be reproached. While answering questions about the recommendations of the State Capture Commission, which he chaired, the Chief Justice ventured into commentary about matters he has no personal knowledge of, even speculating as to the reasons for the government's failure to implement the recommendations,” Naidoo continued.

“More concerning were the Chief Justice's comments regarding the pending arms deal corruption trial of former President Zuma, a matter that is still pending before the High Court, as well as his insinuation that Zuma may, in future, benefit from a remission of sentence if tried and convicted.

“These comments, as well as the Chief Justice's willingness to take media interviews generally, create the risk of perceptions that may compromise his and the judiciary's standing and integrity.”

Naidoo said Zondo's comments could be perceived as wading into public discourse about partisan politics and potentially bringing his impartiality (and that of his colleagues) into question at a time of fierce political contestation ahead of the 2024 general elections.

“It is important to remember that the job of Chief Justice is primarily that of a judge and that the office of a judge requires prudence, restraint and the maintenance of comity between the judiciary and the other two arms of the state. Chief Justice Zondo's comments fall woefully short of the conduct expected of judges by the Code of Judicial Conduct and the norms that govern judicial ethics,” said Naidoo.

“We urge the Chief Justice to exercise restraint in his public engagements and to always act with the best interests of the judiciary, a fragile institution, in mind.”

Meanwhile, the Judges’ Conference also comes at a time when Parliament is in the middle of proceedings to remove Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe and retired Judge Nkola Motata - both for gross misconduct.

A vote on their possible removal is expected next year, and a two thirds majority will be required to remove the judges.

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