SA needs more women on the bench - Judge O'Regan

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Chris Bathembu

Johannesburg - South Africa needs to break "old-boy" barriers and appoint more women on the bench, one of the country's respected legal minds and Constitutional Court Judge, Kate O'Regan said on Tuesday.

In a wide ranging interview with BuaNews, Justice O'Regan, who will be retiring from the court in October after 15 long years, believes there is more work to be done to address the issue of gender balance in South Africa's courts.

"I do think if you look at the judiciary in general, we have done far too poorly when it comes to gender.

"We don't have a head of court who is a woman and certainly in the late 1980s, the number of women graduating from law schools has been the same as men. So when someone tells me there are no women to appoint, I would disagree," said Justice O'Regan.

Her term as a judge of the Concourt, together with that of Chief Justice Langa, Justice Yvonne Mogoro and Justice Albie Sachs will come to an end this year.

But, as she prepares to leave the highest court in the land, the 51-year-old O'Regan is proud to have been one of only two female judges in the male dominated Concourt bench.

"It has been a huge honour and wonderful privilege to serve on this court," she said, as she recalled the good and challenging moments in her tenure as a judge.

"I think one of the things that has ran through the people who have been in this court is a commitment to human rights; a commitment to changing things for the betterment of all South Africans," said Ms O'Regan.

Boxes full of documents and files can be seen packed on top of her desks ready for the road. "That's what happens when you leave office after 15 years," she said.

Born in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, and having grown up in Cape Town, Ms O'Regan became one of the youngest Judges in South Africa's legal fraternity when she was appointed to the bench of the Concourt at the mere age of 37.

"That is why I sometimes think Justice (Yvonne) Mogoro and myself were appointed unusually here because we were very young, especially me, but it's been wonderful.

Discussing the country's justice system, Ms O'Regan thinks South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world - something that has helped the justice system strive.

"We have to remember that we inherited a legal system which did not pay attention to the rights of the accused, a policing system which was not committed to fair treatment and democratic processes of policing.

"One of the important things about the constitution has been to recognise that we must be careful that people are not wrongly convicted or wrongly imprisoned.

"Although one understands the anger and the fear but ordinary South Africans should not let that lead to people who did not commit a crime ending up in jail," said Justice O'Regan.

She will not rest, she says, until South Africa addresses the issue of crime, especially violent crime, which she believes impairs on the rights of citizens to live a normal and secure life.

Asked which case was the most difficult for her 15-year career at the highest court, she said: "Its quite difficult to single out one case, but the biggest case without any doubt was the certification of the constitution when we had to look at the whole text of the constitution and determine whether it fitted with the constitutional principles established in the interim constitution as part of the negotiations."

According to her, the case lasted for three weeks in court. "It raised many issues all sorts of issues some of them difficult so it was quit a challenging case," she said.

While she considers merit to be crucial in the appointment of legal professionals, Ms O'Regan believes transformation of the justice system in South Africa has been proceeding at a snail's pace.

"I am not a great believer I have to say, in a strict demographic pattern everywhere because I don't think it means we have to take what ever the demographics of the day and we would be transformed.

"For me, it means rejecting the past which was authoritarian, racist, elitist, sexist - denying of human values - so we need a legal and justice system that is not any of those things," she said.

To achieve the vision of the constitution - a process of transformation will happen but it would probably take some time.

"As long as we realise that we are not perfect and a lot needs to be changed in a variety of things, we will get there.

"The greatest concern I have is access to legal services. For many South Africans the idea of taking a case to court is just beyond their means. Until we have a justice system which is accessible to all it very difficult to say the system has transformed.

"I hope together with government we can be able to look at the issue of access to legal services," she said.

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