A 2013 motor vehicle accident left Brooks without the use of his right eye, affecting his depth perception and sense of perspective. According to previous unsuccessful interviews at the Judicial Service Commission, the accident also provided a Damascus moment for the advocate, causing him to apply for a place on the judiciary.
Myopia has not affected his judgment when dealing with the socio-economic and civil rights of citizens living in the impoverished Eastern Cape.
While acting at the Eastern Cape High Court in Port Elizabeth Brooks, in 2014, ordered the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality provide portable toilets for residents of three informal settlements outside Despatch, within three weeks of his order. He ruled that the court – as the upper guardian of the approximately 600 children living in the settlements – was duty-bound to protect their dignity.
During another 2014 high court stint, this time in Grahamstown, Brooks ordered that Go Direct Stockmarket Investments, a company seemingly running a pyramid scheme that was fleecing pensioners and professionals out of hundreds of thousands of rands, pay back R1.5-million to 17 Eastern Cape investors.
Brooks obtained an LLB from Rhodes University and joined the Bar as an advocate in 1986. He was conferred silk in 2013. He has spent several stints acting in the High Court in the Eastern Cape since then.
It didn’t take long for last week’s Constitutional Court ruling that President Jacob Zuma had acted unconstitutionally in relation to the Public Protector’s recommendations on Nkandla to find its way into the very first interview of the Judicial Service Commission.
All of ten minutes into advocate Richard Brooks interview, when commissioner Nomthandazo Ntlama asked him whether Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng had overstepped the bounds of the separation of powers in his ruling.
Brooks described the judgment as a “good, bold, brave restatement… of the principles of the rule of law, all interwoven with the separation of powers”.
Justice minister Michael Masutha and commissioner Julius Malema, of the Economic Freedom Fighters also had a short proxy battle over the judgment through Brooks’ interview. Masutha asked Brooks to comment on the statement that “no-one knows the law until the court of final instance [the Constitutional Court] has pronounced on it”. Brooks said that in “many, many instances” there was certainty about the law, and that even the courts of first instance were called upon to “define a new angle to the law” at times.
Malema then responded by asking, in oblique reference to Zuma’s suggestion that he had merely followed legal advice contrary to that confirmed by the Constitutional Court: “Can not knowing the law be an excuse in law?”
Brooks said it depended on the circumstances: “If you are meant to know the law, there is no excuse for not knowing the law.”
Malema followed up, wondering if one was an adult “with many responsibilities, including signing off on the law, can you say that you don’t know the law?”
“No,” said Brooks firmly.
Earlier in the interview, Brooks, who has been before the commission previously, told the commission that having acted in the Mthatha seat of the High Court in the Eastern Cape, he had “got to know the division from the inside” and noted the “definite increase in medical negligence cases” which were “complex and challenging” and which he felt able to deal with.
Brooks was also quizzed on how judges went about balancing judicial independence with judicial accountability, the effects on his practise of having acted as a judge since 2013 (“I don’t have a practise left, in reality.”) and what the obstacles to dispensing justice were. To the last, he felt that access to the courts required money that many people in the impoverished Eastern Cape did not have and he said he was also aware that there was a need to educate people about their rights.