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Judge P Coppin

Capacity: Judge
First appointed as judge: February 2010 – Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg
Further appointments: May 2014 ­– Labour Appeal Court
Gender: Male
Ethnicity: Coloured
Date of Birth: November 1961
Qualifications: BA (1982) LLB (1984) (Wits)

Candidate Biography | Updated May 2024

Justice Phillip Coppin is a judge of the Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg, and the Labour Appeal Court.

Born in in 1961 the historic township of Kliptown, six years after the signing of the Freedom Charter, Coppin broke the stereotype that lawyers are not good with numbers. His first job – at 18 years old – was not as a lawyer but as a high school accounting teaching, giving instruction on debits and credits to Standard 6 and 7 pupils at Noordgesig Secondary School in 1979.

The political significance of his birthplace would be instrumental in charting Coppin’s later life, his decision to pursue a career in law, and his use of the law for social transformation.

He graduated with BA (1982) and LLB (1984) degrees from Wits University before joining the Johannesburg Bar in 1985 as one of the few coloured advocates at the time. He had a diverse practice in wide ranging areas of both criminal and civil law, including labour law, which was nascent at the time.

While in practice, he took up a brief appointment as a law lecturer at the Wits Law School (Jan – Jun 1994) while still leading a complex practice. In October 2005 the President awarded him senior counsel (or silk) status.

Over a decade from 1999 to 2009 Coppin served various intermittent stints as an acting judge in the Gauteng High Court and the Labour Court.

Since his 2010 appointment as a judge of the Gauteng High Court, Coppin has written several important judgments.

In the novel mining law case of Mogale Alloys (Pty) Ltd v Nuco Chrome Bophutatswana, Coppin had to interpret the meaning of section 11(2) of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 and determine under which circumstances would ministerial approval be requirement when there is changing ownership (or changing in a ‘controlling interest’) of a mining company holding mining rights.

After a careful analysis of the evidence presented at the trial, and the meaning of ‘interest’ and ‘controlling interest’ in company, Coppin outlined the circumstances when ministerial approval would not be required and when it will be. Giving the section a broad and generous interpretation, Coppin held that ministerial approval would not be required when the disposal of shares would not constitute more than 50% of the share capital or implicate the power to appoint the majority of directors in the company. It if would, then ministerial approach would be required, as this might have broader implications for the mining company’s compliance with its other duties set out in the MPRDA.

The Mogale Alloys judgment attracted a flurry of commentary. In a paper published in the De Jure law journal mining law Professors Pieter Badenhorst and Jean du Plessis praise Coppin’s judgment as “good law as far as it was held that ministerial consent is required if the “controlling interest” in a company or close corporation moves away from one person without anybody else acquiring a “controlling interest””.

However, they added that there was still uncertainty which must be clarified through legislative amendment.

In response to the Mogale judgment, the Department of Mineral Resources has developed a draft Amendment Bill to state that any change in any interest must require ministerial consent, although this bill is yet to be passed.

Coppin’s interpretation in Mogale was affirmed in a subsequent judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal, Arqomanzi Proprietary Limited v Vantage Goldfields (Pty) Limited and settled the debate on the meaning of section 11 of the MPRDA.

Prior to his appointment as a judge Coppin was extensively involved in transformation initiatives in the legal profession. From the early 1990s until 2003 he was a member of the Black Advocates Forum (BAFO). He later took up member of Advocates for Transformation until his appointment as a judge. In addition to providing training and mentorship to younger advocates, he was an active member of progressive advocates groups such as Pitje Chambers and Bridge Group.

Between 2000 and 2007 Coppin also served various professional bodies, including the Medical and Dental Professional Boards of the Health Professions Council of SA.

Coppin has a wealth of appellate judicial experience. From 2012 Coppin took up acting stints as a judge of the Labour Appeal Court until his permanent appointment in 2014, where he has continued to hold a part-time role. He held a 6-month stint as an acting judge at the Supreme Court of Appeal from December 2016 to May 2017, and then against from December 2023 to May 2024.

In September 2013, over 80 000 goldminers went on strike in a dispute with major mining houses over salaries and benefits. The strike, which the Guardian newspaper described as costs GBP 22 million (R297 000 000) per day, was one of the largest in post-apartheid South Africa, and the first major mineworkers strike after the Marikana Massacre of August 2012.

Goldminers and their unions had been engaged in protracted negotiations with the Chamber of Mines (representing all major mining companies in the sector). There were threats of secondary strikes in other sectors, including the automotive and construction sectors, which would’ve brought the South African economy to its knees. The government was issuing desperate statements calling for calm and negotiation.

After a series of further negotiations between unions and mining houses, the Chamber of Mines signed a collective agreement with four major trade unions, excluding the Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union (AMCU), which rejected the terms of the offer.

The Chamber of Mines of implemented the agreement as a sector-wide agreement, meaning that it bound all employers and all employees – both unionized and non-unionised – and brought the strike to an end.  However, AMCU persisted with the strike.

The Chamber of Mines went to the Labour Court to enforce the collective agreement and declare AMCU as engaging in unprotected strike action, which made them vulnerable to dismissal. The Chamber argued that the collective agreement applied to and bound all workplaces, including where AMCU is organized, and it cannot claim to not be bound.

AMCU argued that an interpretation of “workplace” in the Labour Relations Act that made the collective agreement binding on its own workplaces violates the constitutional rights of collective bargaining and that to strike of its members. The interpretation was therefore unconstitutional.

The Labour Court analysed the law and found in favour of the Chamber, thereby dismissing AMCU’s constitutional challenge. On appeal in the Labour Appeal Court, in AMCU v Chamber of Mines Coppin found that the interpretation of ‘workplace’ by the Labour Court was correct to include all the workplaces over whom the Chamber was negotiating, including those where AMCU is organized. Therefore, the collective agreement was binding on them. In addition, Coppin dismissed the constitutional challenge by AMCU, but after carefully analysing key constitutional provisions.

Coppin’s broad experience as a senior judge of the High Court and a decade’s appellate experience in the Labour Appeal Court place him at a distinct advantage for appointment in the SCA. While he did not enjoy support when he first came knocking at the JSC for promotion to the SCA in 2018, when the sentiment was that he was too green, he now comes much longer in the tooth. It remains to be seen if the JSC will give him the nod.

May 2024 Interview | SCA Interview

In May 2024 Judge Coppin was interviewed by the JSC for a position on the Supreme Court of Appeal. Coppin was unsuccessful in his interview.