06 Apr 2017

Ensure Confidence in our Courts!

Practice Area(s): Litigation |

Court proceedings can often result in heated exchanges either between legal practitioners or between the practitioners and the presiding officers of the court.

A recent judgment highlighted the fact that respect and courtesy must be shown by presiding officers towards those appearing before them. If not, a perception of impartiality is created, which can result in a litigant feeling he is not getting a fair hearing and thus diminishing confidence in our courts.

KwaZulu-Natal High Court Judge, Johan Ploos van Amstel, made these comments in his review judgment of the original case findings in the Magistrate’s Court. The review application was launched by an insurance company in respect of certain evidentiary findings the magistrate had made during the original trial, specifically the admissibility of documents (that a witness could not be cross-examined about a police report because it had not yet been ruled admissible). During the trial, the magistrate made several unnecessary and disrespectful comments towards the insurance company’s legal representatives, including: “Have you asked your colleagues advice on how to prove a document?” and “Do you know what it means to prove a document?”.

Van Amstel overturned the magistrate’s findings and commented that "there are very few problems in court that cannot be dealt with firmly and politely". This judgment serves as a warning to both officers of the court and legal practitioners to keep court proceedings civil and polite.

From a legal principle standpoint, in reviewing the magistrate’s findings, Judge Ploos van Amstel held that cross-examination is a fundamental part of a trial and the Magistrate’s rulings constituted a limitation to this right. He further held that a defendant is entitled to cross-examine a document that has not yet been proved provided the document is proved later during the trial or proof is elicited by such cross-examination. If it is not proved, then such evidence elicited during cross-examination on the document becomes inadmissible.