Tradition in the legal profession has it that it takes years to groom a judge. Most people travel a long way, before they are able to don the robes and walk the hallowed corridors of the Judges’ Chambers. During that path, many subtle and sometimes not so subtle lessons are learned about what is done, by whom and by when. Senior partners of law firms, senior advocates at the bar, our principals, our colleagues and our opponents teach us in myriad ways what to do and more importantly, what not to do. Sometimes the lesson is gently conveyed – sometimes in such a brutal way that the lesson is never forgotten.
As a young lawyer, my court file that I forgot to paginate, was hurled into the court by an irate judge in front of a packed court room, with papers scattering everywhere, resulting in my having to scramble around on my hands and knees to pick them up; and it is a lesson that I will never forget. I once saw a clearly inexperienced colleague appear before a judge and the colleague did not know about the etiquette of introducing themselves to the judge before appearing in court. When this poor hapless person got up to present his case because it was next on the roll, the judge, without looking up at all, said: “Sir, I cannot hear you.” Thinking that the judge was hard of hearing (he was old) he leant down into the microphone and spoke louder. The stenographer almost jumped out of her skin. The judge just sighed and repeated in the same disengaged bored manner that he could not hear him. Eventually a colleague in the court took pity on this man, pulled him aside and asked whether he had introduced himself to the judge prior to the court proceedings. He stood the matter down, went to the judge to introduce himself. His matter was heard immediately after tea.
In recent years, our bench has been filled with men and women whose career-path has not been through the ranks – with people who have not had access to such an informal learning school, who have not had the benefit of these assimilated lessons – and there is no manual. Could it be possible that Judge Hlope and others before and after him could have benefitted from such a manual and is it not time to compile one?