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19 January 2021 Magistrates Commission Interview Synopsis

On 19 January 2021, the Committee interviewed 11 candidates. The interviews were for three entry-level magistrates’ positions in Grahamstown Magistrates Court and one Head of Office position in Adelaide Magistrates Court.

The day started with a rather disappointing calibre of candidates, which improved as the day progressed. The first few candidates for the day were not as well-versed on the law as the candidates the Committee interviewed the previous day. Some of the first few candidates were not able to answer basic questions, specifically those relating to civil law (e.g. the difference between a default judgment and summary judgment). It must be borne in mind that some of these candidates were acting magistrates.

It was a bit concerning that some candidates were not able to give the Committee the same answers as those in their application documents, relating to their personal details. This might have been due to nervousness that candidates experience when appearing before the Committee for interviewing. Be that at it may, candidates are encouraged to remember all the information they have disclosed in their application documents to the Committee.

Some candidates were met with a lot of difficulty in their interviews when the Committee became aware of adverse information which the candidate(s) failed to disclose to the Committee – either in their application form or during the interview. These non-disclosures ranged from a candidate failing to disclose a civil judgment entered against her because of a debt owed by an ex-spouse with whom they were previously married in community of property.

The issue of non-disclosure of important adverse information became the least of the Committee’s worries when a candidate who had been acting as a magistrate since 2018 informed the Committee that they were not aware that the Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa had issued the norms and standard in terms of which judicial officers must abide by. This begged the question as to how the candidate knew how and when to discharge their duties as an acting magistrate? Is access to justice not trumped when an acting magistrate does not even know that there are norms and standards they must abide by?

The important issue of recusal found its way into the interviews. One of the Commissioners advised the chairperson of the Committee that she believes that she should recuse herself from the interview of a particular candidate. The candidate that was to be interviewed had previously appeared before the Commissioner as an accused person. The Committee unanimously agreed that a recusal was not necessary, especially considering that one of the offices that the candidate would be interviewed for fell under the Commissioner who thought it necessary to recuse herself.

If it was not necessary for the Commissioner to recuse herself in judicial appointment interviews in which a candidate is asked whether s/he has criminal and/or civil matters pending against him or her, it begs the question: what is recusal? when and under what circumstance should a Commissioner recuse him or herself? It is our view that a Commissioner should recuse him or herself if it may be concluded that he or she would be biased against the candidate or prejudiced against the candidate or he or she would be conflicted in voting for or against a nomination of a candidate for appointment.