Two Judge’s interviewed for top Northern Cape High Court vacancies
Hoping to fill either the Judge President or Deputy Judge President position, Judge Cecile Williams would have a clear idea of the challenges facing the courts in this sparsely populated province where unemployment and the attendant problems of alcohol abuse, crime, gambling and violence are rife — she has served as a judge there since 2003. However, before the interviews for the Northern Cape Division of the High Court began on Wednesday, 5 April 2017, Judge Williams withdrew her candidacy and was not interviewed for either position.
The first candidate interviewed was current Deputy Judge President, Judge L P Tlaletsi.
When asked by commissioner Thabani Masuku, an advocate and one of four presidential representatives to the Judicial Service Commission, his one “indispensable quality of a judge president,” Tlaletsi said: “To be open and in control.”
Highlighting that the Northern Cape, while sparsely populated, is the biggest province in terms of land mass, Tlaletsi said one of the main challenges facing the population there is “people have to travel long distances to come to court.”
Tlaletsi later said that he would address the challenge by working closely with the magistracy, consult community leaders to discover what the main problems were and investigate whether strengthening access to pro-bono legal advice and the Legal Aid Board would help address the situation.
He said judgments reserved for inordinately long periods were “not that much of a problem” in the division and told the commission that his approach to dealing with tardy judges would be to first “monitor progress” before engaging judges to “find out what the problems would be” and rectifying the situation.
Tlaletsi said he would “be careful not to reward laziness” by taking judges with outstanding judgments out of courts so that they would have time to complete them.
But Public Service and Administration Minister Faith Muthambi, sitting in for Justice Minister Michael Masutha, quizzed Tlaletsi on his own record in handing down judgments. Pointing out that the General Council of the Bar had been critical of him for being “prone to unreasonable delay” Muthambi asked if it was “acceptable” that the judge had several outstanding judgments going back seven or eight months.
Tlaletsi said most of these judgments were in the Labour Appeal Court and had been delayed because other judges on the panel had to have “a bite at it”.
His spat with other judges (see Judge Majiedt’s profile) was also raised and Tlaletsi said the matter had been resolved and “once due process has been followed… one must move on with life”.
The only other candidate was Judge Violet Phatshoane interviewing for the position of Deputy Judge President of the Northern Cape High Court.
During her time at the Northern Cape High Court, Judge Phatsoane has dealt with cases dealing with the messy confluence of politics and business interests in the province.
Last year she sentenced former Northern Cape ANC provincial chairperson, and pro-Jacob Zuma strongman, John Block, to an effective 15 years imprisonment after finding him guilty of corruption and money-laundering following an arduous four-year trial.
Following a ramble of a preamble, Minister Faith Muthambi interrogated Judge Phatshoane on a complaint lodged against her concerning the John Block case. (See Judge Phatshoane’s profile for more details).
The minister first asked if the order (handed down by Phatshoane) dismissing a request by Block that she recuse herself from his corruption and money-laundering trail was “complied with?” Phatshoane nervously responded that she had handed down the order and that she had been advised by the JSC that a related complaint by Block to the JSC had been “dealt with… and dismissed.”
Muthambi followed up: “Aren’t you concerned that it was dismissed as an implicated party?” Phasthoane, looking puzzled, said that “on the contrary… I was happy to receive the letter from the JSC…[and] that the JSC saw these allegations were not compliant with the act and dismissed the allegation.”
The politicians on the commission bared their partisan teeth: Commissioner Hendrick Schmidt, of the Democratic Alliance, later pointed to the vague detail in the allegations and commented that it was based on hearsay.
Then ANC member of the National Council of Provinces, Dikgang Stock, started pushing the interviewee on her decision to dismiss the application for recusal in the Block matter.
Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema called a point of order stating that he was “worried” that the questioning was going into “dangerous territory” as the matter may be appealed.
Stock persisted. Malema raised another point of order. Mogoeng ruled to end the line of questioning.
When later asked to point out any judgments that contributed to the development of the country’s jurisprudence, Phatshoane cited the judgment in the Block matter which allowed her to address a “lacuna” in the Corruption Act.
The interview later shifted from mainstream politics to the politics within the Northern Cape when Mogoeng brought up the fact that Judge Cecile Williams, who had initially availed herself to be interviewed for both the Judge President and Deputy-Judge President positions, had withdrawn her candidacy.
Mogoeng said Williams had written to the JSC alleging that outgoing Judge President Frans Kgomo “had been grooming [Phatshoane] over the years” to eventually lead the division. The Chief Justice asked Phatshoane whether this could potentially “spoil” their relationship, and what measures the interviewee would take to ensure this didn’t happen.
Phatshoane conceded “there may be a problem that may arise” and that this may be resolved at a “diversity workshop” to be held soon.
Commenting on the rate of gender and race transformation, Phatsoane said that the judiciary was “making some strides, slowly but surely we are getting there” with the number of female judges having risen from 0.7% in 1994 to around 30% in 2017.
She also cited the prospective confirmation of acting Supreme Court of Appeal President Mandisa Maya as the first female head of that court as progress. Phatshoane also stated that transformation was not just about numbers, but also improving the capacity of judges.
Watch the videos of the JSC interviews for the Northern Cape Division of the High Court:
Read the Times Live article: Candidate abandons bid for Northern Cape Judge President post.
Read the Business Day article: Judge withdraws from interview believing another already tipped for position.