A superfluous concept? The inherent jurisdiction of the South African superior courts as upper guardians of children

Authors: Julia Sloth-Nielsen & Brigitte Clark

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Professor of Law, University of Huddersfield; Emeritus Professor, University of the Western Cape; Associate Professor, School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Honorary Visiting Researcher, Oxford Brookes University
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 141 Issue 2, p. 391-414


This article examines the relationship between the role of the superior courts as upper guardians of minors and the constitutionally enshrined right of South African children to have their best interests considered paramount in any matter concerning them. The powerful procedural role of the superior courts in this regard is not subject to review or appeal, enabling the courts to intervene of their own accord on behalf of and to protect all children in their jurisdiction. The article examines whether this upper guardianship role has become superfluous and outdated in light of the constitutional requirement that courts consider the paramountcy of the child’s best interests as an independent right. The High Court’s upper guardianship role provides a more flexible legal basis for judicial intervention, as the case law reviewed in this article indicates. It is also supported by s 173 of the Constitution, which refers to the inherent powers of courts to protect and regulate their own process and to develop the common law, and by s 45(4) of the Children’s Act. Furthermore, the superior courts, as courts of record, enable the development of a system of precedent-based child law, providing judicial reasons for all decisions and justifying the retention of the common-law inherent jurisdiction of the High Court as the upper guardian of children. We conclude that there is a residual role for the continued existence of the powers of the superior courts to act as upper guardians of the children within their jurisdiction, the constitutional best-interests standard notwithstanding.