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How to become a judge

*Updated July 2024

Becoming a judge in South Africa is unlike most jobs as one does not study specifically at university to become one, and then apply for the job. There is no “judging” degree in South Africa. This is unlike other countries, particularly those that follow what is known as the civil law system, where you can study to become a judge when you attend university.

Judges preside over criminal, civil and constitutional matters in the High Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court. They are appointed by the President on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission.

In terms of section 174 of the Constitution, any appropriately qualified person, who is considered fit and proper, may be appointed as a judicial officer.

Here is a brief overview of how most judicial candidates become judges:

Step 1: Study law and become an advocate, attorney, or magistrate.

Traditionally, before 1994, and still in many cases now, you studied law, went to the bar and became an advocate, and then became a judge. You can now also become an attorney, or a magistrate, or a law professor and still become a judge.

Section 174 of the Constitution sets out the broad criteria for judicial appointment, which has two components: you must be suitably qualified and fit and proper. This means you must have South African-recognised legal qualification, and be admitted to enter the legal profession. You also have  to be a fit and proper person. This is generally understood to mean you satisfy the high ethical standards of the legal profession, have no recent criminal offences, or serious criminal offences, and no disciplinary issues with the regulatory body e.g. the Legal Practice Council.

You have to been in legal practice for some years before you can become a judge. Although there is no guideline of how many years you need to have been in practice, your experience must generally be broad yet deep. You must be familiar with broad areas of the law (including criminal law, constitutional law, family law, and delict, among others), but also have a niche legal field where you have excelled. In addition, you must have a strong grasp of court procedure and a deep understanding of the Constitution and its underlying values.

Step 2: Be asked to be an acting judge

Although there is no formal requirement to be an acting judge, it is often expected for aspirant judges to have some familiarity with the courts through having acted as a judge there.

A Judge President is the head of a division of the High Court. They often need extra judges to help out in cases – which is when you get a chance to be an acting judge. This gives the Judge President the opportunity to see if you are competent, in which case you may be given the opportunity to be an acting judge for another few terms, where you are exposed to different aspects of a judge’s work.

In order for candidates to be appointable to the bench, it has become the practice of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to require acting experience. This is despite the fact that acting experience is not a formal requirement in terms of the Constitution (the JSC’s 2023 Criteria for Judicial Selection say acting experience is an advantage).

However, as a broad requirement, acting experience has its drawbacks. For magistrates, it means time away from their district and regional courts, and part-heard cases going…unheard.

For legal practitioners (attorneys and advocates) serving as acting judges means time away from their legal practices and the financial and other knocks that come with it – as practitioners may not run (or even communicate with) their practices while on the bench. For a single practitioner or someone in a small firm this presents enormous obstacles.

While most academics are experts in their particular fields of law, they are seldom appointed as acting judges. This explains in some measure why they are not appointed in the superior courts like the High Court, SCA and Constitutional Court.  However, in recent times things are beginning to change as many law professors now service as acting judges.

Even though acting as a judge enriches an academic’s teaching and research, most universities have not yet developed policies which allow academics to serve as acting judges. This means academics may only serve as acting judges during university recess periods or when they are on sabbatical.

Step 3: be nominated for interview – the JSC interviews process

The Chief Justice, the President of the Supreme Court of Appeal or the responsible Judge President tells the JSC when a vacancy occurs or will occur in the Concourt, the SCA or any provincial High Court. The JSC then advertises the vacancy and calls for nominations, with a specified closing date.

For you to be considered for judicial appointment, you need to be nominated for the post. Such a nomination includes a motivation letter written by the nominator, and the nominee (you) filling out the JSC questionnaire (including attaching relevant documents like your CV and a sample of 5 written judgments).

Once the nominations have been received the “screening committee”, a 9-member subcommittee of the 25-member JSC, prepares a shortlist of candidates to be invited to the public interviews.

Once the shortlist is drawn up, the JSC informs the eligible candidates but also invites law bodies and the general public to submit comments on the candidates. These comments must provide any relevant information on the suitability of the candidate to be a judge. The JSC does not allow anonymous comments, nor does it allow misconduct complaints to be submitted through this process. If there are any adverse comments against you, the JSC will send them to you and request your written comment on them.

Step 4: JSC Interviews AND deliberation process

The JSC holds public interviews for aspirant judges at a large venue, usually in Gauteng. All 25 commissioners sit on a panel in a long u-shaped table (see Who sits on the JSC Panel?).

Starting with the Chief Justice (or any person chairing the interview), different commissioners will ask you questions that seek to tease out your qualities, including your legal experience, your exposure to different areas of the law, your ethics and integrity, your work ethic and energy, your contribution to the legal profession and community, and your understanding of the Constitution and its values. All these questions are based on the JSC questionnaire you submit to the JSC, plus any comments received from the law bodies or the general public. Importantly, the questions must relate to JSC’s adopted Criteria for Judicial Appointments.

JSC interviews are public. This means that members of the public are allowed to watch, and/or the interviews are livestreamed on YouTube or broadcast on radio and television. This is perhaps the intimidating part of the profess, but it serves an important role in testing your suitability for judicial office. Afterall, you will become a judge for life!

After the interview, JSC commissioners go into a private session where they will deliberate over all the candidates interviewed, the needs of the court, and which candidates will be suitable for appointment. Thereafter, they decide which candidates to appoint through a secret vote.

If you get a majority of votes in the JSC, about 13 votes, then you are selected to become a judge. The JSC will inform you directly through a phone call or email immediately (on the same day) and then announce its decision to the public. At the end of the JSC session, they will then write to the president informing him of their recommendation.

The President will officially appoint you as a judge through signing a ‘President’s Act’ which is then published in the Government Gazette with a date on when your appointment becomes effective. At the same time, the President will sign your appointment certificate.

Shortly before you take up judicial office, the Judge President will invite you to take your judicial oath (in Gauteng, this is done in a public ceremony with your family present).


After the interviews, Judges Matter posts the interviews for each candidate on our website and on Youtube (some even have over a million views!)

For several years, Judges Matter has keenly followed the judicial appointments process and the JSC interviews. We regularly write and comment about the JSC, including pre- and post- interview analysis, drawing attention to some of the burning issues. You can follow on our website www.judgesmatter.co.za or on our social media pages: Twitter / X (@WhyJudgesMatter), LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/judges-matter/ and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judgesmatter .

Covering the judicial appointments process and the JSC interviews comes at a considerable cost. For this work, we rely heavily on our donors and supporters. Please consider making a small donation to Judges Matter: https://www.judgesmatter.co.za/donate-now-judges-matter/