THE Grahamstown High Court has seen some action over its 150 years.
In 1861 renowned 19th century author Charles Dickens took on the EP Herald in the Grahamstown High Court, alleging it had violated copyright law by publishing part of one of his most popular books Great Expectations. The Cape and Natal News records that the court interdicted the paper from running any further extracts from the book.
Advocate Izak Smuts, SC, points out that over its 150 years the court’s record was “not without blemish, but also not without honour”.
Even under apartheid, some judges managed to skirt the spirit of apartheid law and achieve justice.
Smuts points to a 1985 decision resulting in the release from detention of anti-apartheid campaigner Gugile Nkwinti, now Rural Development and Land Reform Minister in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet.
Judge Donald Kannemeyer, to the fury of the security police, found Nkwinti’s detention had been illegal and ordered his release – despite the then state of emergency.
Since then, the court has seen many prominent people cross its threshold, including cricketer Makhaya Ntini. The Grahamstown High Court in October 1999 overturned his rape conviction on appeal.
Looking back to some of its earlier criminal cases, senior state advocate Nickie Turner points to the big difference in the nature of crimes from the 1800s and now.
In one such matter in the 1880s, she says a presiding judge Sir Jacob Dirk Barry quashed a public drunkenness and disorderly charge on the grounds that the person concerned had merely been staggering about the streets and making a noise.
He said at the time that the law required that the person had to be found drunk and lying down
“The moral of the story is that, back in the day, unless you were paralytically drunk and absolutely legless you were okay and your misbehaviour did not attract censure.”
In another matter a man was charged with the possession, without a licence, of 16 assegais. Another man was charged with the crime of malicious injury to property in that he did “wrongfully and unlawfully break the leg of an ostrich”.
But, on a more serious note, she said her perusal of the law reports from the 1800s had also revealed “not a single reported capital case, let alone a case where someone was charged with armed robbery, or fraud, or corruption, the rape of a child or serial offences of any nature. Times have indeed changed.”
But perhaps the Grahamstown High Court has become best known for what legal commentators yesterday called its pioneering, important and extraordinary innovations in socioeconomic rights litigation.
Internationally renowned law professor Sandra Liebenberg earlier this year said the Grahamstown High Court had broadened access to courts through pioneering the class action and had come up with numerous innovative remedies and strategies for securing compliance with court orders
Others, including law professor Hugh Corder, speak of the post-1994 Eastern Cape judiciary as one that had pursued “the transformation goals of the constitution in every way”.
Turner said it was to be hoped the court would continue to serve the people of this province for many years to come, both as the seat and a centre of judicial and legal excellence.