Understanding Our Courts: A Quick Look
- Featured article by LAWYERS-ONLINE.CO.ZA - August 2019
The South African Legal system is a well-oiled machine governed by our Constitution and much admired by legal scholars. However, the layout of our courts can be confusing, especially when trying to understand why a case is being heard in a certain court or even what all these courts are supposed to do.
After all, in our minds when we picture the court, we simply think of a judge, his gavel and legal eagles expertly battling it out with quick-witted legal quotes and cross-examinations. This happens, but not the way we imagine it in the movies.
So with that in mind, let’s take a quick tour of the courts in South Africa and explain how they function and benefit each other.
Known as the “Highest Court of the Land”, the constitutional court is the last stop for legal matters and decisions made here are final. This court only hears constitutional matters, such as an infringement of someone’s rights as specified in the Constitution, or questioning the constitutionality of a judgment form the Supreme Court of Appeal.
This court features 11 judges and can be found on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. To be a judge on this panel of 11 is a huge honour and something many judges aspire to.
Supreme Court of Appeal
For all cases that do not have a constitutional appeal claim, the Supreme Court of Appeal is the final stop. Decisions made here cannot be overturned, unless the Constitutional Court steps in.
Situated in Bloemfontein, this court is presided over by a President, Deputy President and a panel of ordinary Judges of Appeal, and normally five judges hear a case.
It should be noted that one can’t simply appeal to this court for a traffic ticket, as there are numerous procedures to follow to get a case heard here. Talk to us about your appeal and we can advise which court to approach before heading to the top.
This is where we get into the more everyday legal proceedings, as most provinces have a High Court with more being established as of this article. Currently High Courts can be found in:
- Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape
- Bloemfontein in the Free State
- Pretoria and Johannesburg in the Gauteng
- Pietermaritzburg and Durban in KZN
- Mahikeng in the North West
- Kimberley in the Northern Cape
- Cape Town in the Western Cape
There are other types of High Courts, such as circuit courts that do not have a permanent seat, but instead move around the country to hear matters in more rural areas. This gives everyone access to our legal proceedings.
The High Court is known as a superior court, meaning that all courts below it must adhere to its judgments. The only courts able to challenge or overturn decisions made here are the Supreme Court of Appeal and The Constitutional Court.
These courts are presided over by a President and Deputy President with numerous judges in the seat for each division in the various provinces. Even though the High Court has jurisdiction over all matters, for cases to be heard by the High Court there are certain criteria that should be met such as the following:
- Civil matters involving more than R400 000
- Serious criminal cases
- Appeals or reviews from lower courts
A lower-level court, but no less important, the Magistrate’s Courts of South Africa are perhaps the busiest in the land. These courts are found all over in districts and regional settings, of which there is estimated to be 350 courts.
These courts hear a large number of cases per day and often the goal is to keep the wheels of justice moving as efficiently as possible. Cases heard here include:
- Civil cases where the claim is not bigger than R200 000
- Criminal cases excluding murder, rape and treason for district courts
- Regional courts may hear all criminal cases excluding treason
- Regional courts may hear divorce cases
These courts as established by Parliament were created to provide a more specialized approach to certain legal matters. It would be impossible for legal practitioners and judges to be 100% knowledgeable on everything contained in our legal system, and therefore when it comes to matters that require deeper research and interpretation the following courts were established:
- Labour Court
- Land Claims Court
- Tax Courts
- Electoral Courts
These courts fall outside the traditional judiciary but are worth a mention as they pertain to members of the SANDF who are in breach of the Military Discipline Code. These courts hand out fines for minor infractions, but more serious matters are heard by a Military Judge.
However not all crimes committed by a member of SANDF is heard by the military courts, and there are criminal offences that may be only be heard by our civilian judiciary.
Small Claims Court
Lastly, let’s look at the Small Claims Court, which can hear any matter that does not exceed a value of R15 000.
This is an excellent way for individuals to settle disputes involves smaller amounts of money, as it involves far less legal fees and legalities.
If you still find yourself a little confused about the courts in South Africa, why not reach out and ask us? Our legal experts are happy to help you understand which court may hear your matter.