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Judges M S Rugunanan

Advocate Rugunanan - Eastern Cape - JSC interviews 2019


Current position: Advocate

Date appointed: Joined the Bar in 2001

Candidate bio:

Rugunanan holds an LLB from Rhodes University and has spent several stints acting at the Eastern Cape High Court in Grahamstown, from 2012 until 2018.

During these acting stints he has dealt with both civil and criminal matters. Where the occasion has demanded, Rugunanan has noted the societal context in which many of these crimes were committed and the idea that “justice must be seen to be done” by broader communities.

In S V Koester, which dealt with an 18 year sentence for a murder conviction, Rugunanan “considered the matter anxiously” before confirming that, after considering the circumstances, “a heavy sentence in excess of the prescribed minimum is justified”.

He described the murder as “a brutal and callous act for no justifiable reason and for which no explanation exists other than a blatant denial premised on the notion of a conspiracy against him. This kind of brutality has unfortunately become a regular occurrence of life in South Africa and courts are enjoined to signal a clear message that such behaviour will not escape the full force and effect of the law …. It is noted the accused elected not to testify in mitigation of sentence. Whatever his reasons, that was his right but it is not without consequences … His silence simply meant there was nothing to be said in his favour.”

Ragunanan confirmed that 18 years was “proportionate to the nature and seriousness of the crime”.

He has previously worked as an Estates Examiner for the department of justice and as an advocate at the Grahamstown Bar from 2001. In 2017 he interviewed unsuccessfully for a position on the Eastern Cape Bench. Then, a judgment reserved for nine months appeared to scupper his chances of appointment.

October 2019 Interview:

October 2019 Interview synopsis:

Something that appeared to frustrate a number of JSC members during this session was why candidates for appointment in the Eastern Cape did not make themselves available for vacancies on the bench in Bisho or Umtata. All of them wanted to be appointed in Makhanda. Why was this? Could they not persuade any of the candidates to agree to an appointment outside Makhanda?

Almost all the candidates for the Eastern Cape court were asked why they would not consider a position based elsewhere, outside of Makhanda. Was the JSC aware of high house prices in Bisho and Umtata, one candidate asked. And all of them told the commission that they were unwilling to take a position in Bisho or Umtata because of the time it would take for a daily – even a weekly – commute.

Advocate Motilal Sunil Rugunanan, with 18 years on the bar, said he now has a ‘dormant’ practice because of how long he has been acting on the bench. He started acting in 2014 and acted ‘fairly regularly’ since then including most of this year. With all that experience, however, he now believes he is equipped for a permanent post.

A representative of the Premier’s office said he did not have much to ask, but that he had ‘problems just across the Kei’.

‘I want to get a sense from (counsel about) the interest in Grahamstown as opposed to Umtata. If I can just get a sense ….’

‘Regarding the question about my preference for Grahamstown: it’s where I live; it’s my home. So naturally I have a sentimental attachment. I’m not averse to being appointed in any other division, but Grahamstown is where I live. I am aware … that judges in the division are circulated to deliver services in various parts of the division.’ (This was a reference to the fact that judges in the Eastern Cape regularly spend time in all five of the centres where the court operates.)

Other candidates for Grahamstown/Makhanda gave similar answers when asked about why they did not want to apply for other Eastern Cape centres.

The main interest in this interview, however, was discussion of whether a way could be found to reduce the costs involved in cases where people were injured either on the roads or else in state hospitals.

Could the number of experts generally involved in Road Accident Fund cases not be reduced, and could a way not be found to reduce those costs by using a different system for expert evidence? Payments to the experts called in such cases used up a great deal of the RAF budget. Rugunanan said it was not unusual to find a whole panel of experts. There were cases where the evidence of two experts overlapped significantly and the court then had to decide whether to allow the costs of both experts, or just one.

This sparked a train of thought by the Chief Justice: a lot of money that should be going to injured people, goes elsewhere, he said. Was it not possible to ‘create a cohort of experts – on the assumption that they would be as professional as circumstances require – who would, at government expense, whenever people are injured in road accidents, examine them, determine the nature of their injuries’ and future treatment and recommend to the RAF what should be payable?

Such a system would ‘cut out these huge amounts of money (claimed) under circumstances we don’t always understand. How difficult would it be to do something like that?’

‘I am talking about a very deliberate re-engineering of the system. You know there has been abuse; you want to put an end to it. So, you come up with a system designed to assist – but at the same time cutting out all these many allegations of corruption, even by professionals, so that it becomes easier. As soon as a person is reported injured, the state intervenes’. There may also be other experts, said the Chief Justice, but they would all be under the ‘hawkish supervision’ of someone who would ensure that all the ‘shenanigans’ were cut out.

Advocate Rugananan was recommended for appointment.

October 2017 Interview:


October 2017 Interview synopsis:

A judgment reserved for nine months proved the major sticking point in advocate Sunil Rugunanan’s 27-minute interview — judges have three months to deliver a judgment or can hand it down during the following term with the permission of the judge president.

In his defence Rungunanan said the tardiness was “not a result of indolence or incompetence on my part,” but because it was a “very complex matter”. Rugunanan’s attempt to explain the complexity of the matter — which dealt with legislation and safety regulations related to demolition of buildings — did not appear to win over the Judicial Service Commission.

The JSC was even less impressed when Rungunanan admitted that he did not know he was required to seek out the Eastern Cape Judge President’s permission to delay handing down a reserved judgment.