THE National Assembly on Thursday took a big step towards insulating the judiciary from political influence by approving the Superior Courts Bill.
Earlier versions of the bill sought to place the administration of the courts in the hands of a politician — the justice minister— but the approved version makes it very clear that this will be the responsibility of the chief justice.
There have recently been numerous attacks on the judiciary by politicians, with judges being described as reactionary and told that they cannot enjoy as much power in society as elected politicians who serve in the executive at the will of the people.
Introducing the bill’s second reading debate, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said it was a necessary step towards establishing a courts system managed by judges.
The bill repeals the Supreme Courts Act of 1959 and rationalises all laws relating to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the high courts.
Democratic Alliance MP Dene Smuts said on Thursday that the bill, read together with the constitution 17th amendment, gave the first legislative effect to plans for an institutionally independent judicial branch.
"Those plans were long in the making among the judges, and were driven by Judge Sandile Ngcobo. He was the first incumbent of the newly created office of the chief justice," she said. "His successor, Chief Justice (Mogoeng) Mogoeng, has continued the work of preparing for a judiciary-led court administration."
Ms Smuts said the bill would repeal a range of existing laws, particularly those of former homelands, under which South Africa’s courts were established in the past.
"It has taken all these years and five ministers of justice since 1994 to finally achieve the rationalisation required by schedule 6(16)(6) of the constitution, which asks for rationalisation to establish a judicial system suited to the constitutional dispensation," she said. "In addition, it creates the new system of court governance by the judges themselves."
Ms Smuts said the bill had given the chief justice " the tools for the job" — the task of convening forums of judges with whom he may set the norms and standards for judicial functions and for the efficient functioning of the courts.
African National Congress MP Phathekile Holomisa said the bill provided a legislative measure that assisted and protected the superior courts to ensure their independence, impartiality, dignity, accessibility and effectiveness.
"It further addresses the question of the rationalisation, composition, as well as areas of jurisdiction for the high courts, the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court, and makes it clear beyond any doubt that the latter is the supreme court of the land, with its head being the chief justice of SA," he said.
"As the head of the judiciary, the chief justice is empowered to exercise authority and responsibility over the development of norms and standards for the exercise of judicial functions such as the allocation of cases to judges and courtrooms … he is expected to exercise these powers in conjunction with the relevant heads of court."