“Fit and proper” judges and free speech: A critical reflection

Author: Fareed Moosa

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: BProc (UWC) LLB (UWC) LLM (UCT) LLD (UWC), Associate Professor, Department of Mercantile and Labour Law, University of the Western Cape
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 3, 2023, p. 429 – 450


Against the backdrop of the silence by apartheid-era judges who refused to speak out against the inhumanity of apartheid, resulting in egregious human rights violations, this article explores what it means to be a “fit and proper” judge as envisaged by section 174(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 read with the Judicial Service Commission Act 9 of 1994 and the Code of Judicial Conduct GN R 865 in GG 35802 of 18-10-2012 (“the Code”). The argument is that, in this context, the meaning of “fit and proper” has far greater depth and breadth than the same normative standard contemplated by the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 for lawyers as officers of the court. A “fit and proper” judge is a person with more than just absolute integrity, impeccable honesty, a high degree of professionalism, and unflinching incorruptibility. A judge is also a person who, at all times, scrupulously obeys the Constitution and its dictates, strictly respects the law and abides by the rule of law, always advances human rights and constitutional values, and faithfully discharges all duties embraced by the oath of judicial office and does so with courage.
This article argues that South Africa can only take its rightful place in the family of nations if its judges, through their extra-judicial words and deeds, help shape South African society, and others where needed. The Constitution and the oath of judicial office oblige judges to, inter alia, denounce apartheid in any of its current-day incarnations, and advocate for legal orders moulded by democratic values, human rights, freedom, equality, rule of law, and justice for all. A culture of judicial silence in the face of injustice and human rights violations, whether perpetrated on foreign or domestic soil, is an abdication of judicial responsibility and antithetical to the ethos underpinning the transformative notion of a “fit and proper” judge under the Constitution. This article reminds judges that while duties arising from the Constitution and their oath of office rank supreme over any in the Code, they are to be delicately balanced. Extra-curial speech must respect the separation of powers and not undermine the judiciary’s standing, integrity and independence.