Truth Commission slates South African legal establishment

South Africa's entire legal establishment, particularly its senior judiciary and magistrates, has been fiercely criticised by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report .

More than 100 senior judges – most of them appointed under the apartheid government – and hundreds of magistrates were singled out for their “lamentable” and “extremely disappointing” decision not to appear in person before the commission, which sat for three years under Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The legal profession in general was found to have “unwittingly connived in the executive pursuit of injustice”.

The Pretoria State Bar was singled out as it “refused to admit black members and only passed an apology for its racism in October 1997”.

The General Council of the Bar (GCB) was branded as “obsequious” in its attitude to the government, “hounding those of its members who chose to buck the system”, such as Bram Fischer, who was struck off with “indecent haste” in 1964.

Since the end of apartheid, the legal profession has slowly embraced reform. In March, the white-dominated Association of Law Societies (ALS) was disbanded and replaced by the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), which has equal representation between blacks and whites on its governing body.

Last month, the Cape Bar voted for a similar system of equal representation.

Later his month, the GCB is holding a special meeting to consider changes to its constitution.

Vincent Saldanha, national general secretary of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, said he was disappointed that members of the judiciary had not been forced to appear before the commission. They had claimed such an appearance would have threatened their independence.

Saldanha also criticised the GCB for failing to apologise fully for its behaviour during apartheid when it appeared before the TRC. He added that the Association of Law Societies had made a full apology when it gave evidence to the TRC.