Monday 22 January 2018

Uncertainty about the use of Afrikaans in pleadings in South African courts

'English will be the only language of record in South African courts, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said on Friday.

"Nobody is saying South Africans are not permitted to speak in their mother tongue in a court of law," Mogoeng told reporters at the office of the chief justice in Midrand.

"We are just saying, to facilitate efficiency and a smooth running of the court system, we would do well according to our experience... We [should] have everything that is said in a particular case captured in one language that is understood by all the judges - and that language is English," he said.

The decision was made during a two-day meeting held by the heads of courts, under the chairmanship of Mogoeng.' (City Press, 29/09/2017)

Everything said, traditionally includes the court record, often auditory in nature, and the pleadings. In that sense, it would seem all litigation must take place or be translated into English.

An early 2017 decision which seems largely confined to Saflii in being reported is one by acting judge, C R Jansen, in Pretoria, namely Lakey v Road Accident Fund (69036/2015) [2017] ZAGPPHC 245 (25 May 2017). It does not take into account the decision of the chief justice, which purportedly occurred a mere month before its final decision was announced, and which thus would be unlikely to apply to its pleadings, but nonetheless is entirely unmentioned.

Of language, it specifically says:

[31] The plaintiff s pleadings were drafted in Afrikaans. It is not appropriate to use Afrikaans in pleadings or in correspondence where other litigants involved are not conversant in the language, or where it can be foreseen that they may not be.
[32] In the present matter it was particularly inappropriate. The plaintiff testified in English and confirmed that his mother tongue is, in fact, English. More importantly, counsel for the defendant, Ms Kelaotswe, confirmed that she does not understand Afrikaans and that she can neither read nor write the language. Her position is most invidious. At the time of the trial she was still in the first year of her practice, and she informed me that when she receives Afrikaans pleadings or correspondence, she is compelled to have these translated at her own cost. This is most unfair towards her and is also a violation of what I consider the correct approach to be in respect of multilingualism in our courts.
[33] That multilingualism and tensions over the use of language is nothing new, is well illustrated in an insightful article written by Professor Gardiol van Niekerk entitled Multilingualism in South African Courts: The legislative regulation of language in the Cape during the Nineteenth Century.[12] The problem is as old as the law itself. There is a fair amount of literature available on the subject[13].
[34] The judicial branch of government has not yet framed a set of rules that deals with the issue of choice of language in courts. Neither the Superior Courts Act 10 of 2013, nor the Rules Board for Courts of Law Act 107 of 1985 seems to deal with this issue in any specifics.
[35] For the legislative branch Parliament has adopted rules as well as policies for choice of language use in the legislature[14], and for the executive Parliament has enacted the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 that creates the framework for implementing multilingualism in the national sphere of government[15].
[36] The absence of rules makes it difficult for a judge to rule on the issue without betraying his/her personal views on the matter. Apart from the rules of this court not dealing with the issue, I am not aware of any practice directive that deals with the issue. The references in Rule 4(11), Rule 60(1), Rule 61(1) and Rule 61(3) to language issues all seem to be obsolete provisions.[16]
[37] In the matter of Absa Bank Limited v Ferreira NO and Others,[17] Revelas J observed the following in respect of what the rules are m respect of the choice of language in pleadings and forensic conduct:
"[21] ...In my experience the practice adopted in courts in cases where persons prefer to use their mother tongue in preference to English is the following: a litigant may choose to litigate in any of the official languages but is not required to translate the pleadings and documents at own costf or the benefit of the party using a different language.
[22] Just as the defendants, in reliance on s30 of the Constitution have a right to litigate in Afrikaans, so the plaintiff has a right to litigate in English. There is no obligation founded in law, on the party who is dominus litis, to translate all its correspondence and process in ongoing litigation for the benefit of the defendant or respondent, as the case may be. It may be done as a courtesy or as an indulgence.
[23] The defendants have postulated the plaintiff's language policy with its customers as its choice of language when it litigates. These are separate issues entirely. The plaintiff is not obliged to conduct its litigation in Afrikaans and English simply because its opponent (as a customer) was dealt with in Afrikaans. Practical considerations ought to take preference when striking a balance between the right of a litigant to initiate litigation in the language of its choice, and the right of the party defending or opposing that litigation to use his or her language of choice. That means that neither party can prescribe to the other what language to use.
[24] If, for example, a person who only speaks isiXhosa, and who lives in a remote area in the Transkei, is cited as a defendant in civil proceedings drafted in English, he or she would not be entitled to insist that:
(a)    All documents served on him be in isiXhosa.
(b)   That all court proceedings be conducted in isiXhosa.
(c)    That the plaintiff's English speaking counsel argue the matter in isiXhosa.
(d)   That the magistrate or judge must conduct the proceedings and write thejudgment in isiXhosa.
[25] That would simply be impracticable..."
[38] The judge's summary of what appears presently to be the practice in South Africa is correct. However, the problem is that the practice has not been informed by a proper discussion within the legal community on this issue. I am not aware of any ruling made by any of the law societies or by the General Council of the Bar or any of its constituents in respect of choice of language. Yet I am aware of many informal and somewhat muted grumblings by practitioners about the insensitive use of Afrikaans in correspondence and pleadings. This case is a good example of the inappropriate use of Afrikaans.
[39] The problem with such a very sensitive matter, which is also a matter of constitutional importance, is that one cannot properly formulate a rule if there has not been a proper discussion of the issue. This discussion is dearly needed.
[40] It is respectfully not appropriate to revert to concepts such as dominus litis as the source of a rule for the choice of language. This may have been appropriate in the pre-democratic era, where there were only two official languages in South African courts, and all practitioners and judicial officers were required to be conversant in both. In such a system, it can easily be expected of any practitioner to read communications in a language other than his preference, but at the same time be entitled to present his or her case in the language of his choice, or, more appropriately, in the language of his client[18]. The dominus litis principle simply does not have the wherewithal to serve as the crucible for the recognition of the status of official languages in court procedings.
[41] Such a rule is simply not practicable in our system of multilingualism. In many instances, such as the present, it is insensitive, uncollegial and even socially obnoxious to use a language that may very well not be understood by the opposing party. On the other hand, all official languages must be used and developed to make their status as official languages real.
[42] In the ideal South Africa, practitioners and judicial officers will themselves be multilingual and would be able to accommodate most languages used in their particular region of the country. However, South Africa isn't anywhere near such a situation.
[43] I cannot take the matter any further other than stating that the use of Afrikaans in this matter for either correspondence or pleadings was most inappropriate. This type of litigation, as with most litigation, should be conducted in English as the only real lingua franca in South Africa. It also does not help that the professional bodies have not engaged in broader internal discussions and that they have not come up with specific rulings to assist practitioners.
[44] While the use of English as a default language is the only practical solution at present, I do not wish to be understood as saying that the use of Afrikaans or other indigenous languages in South Africa should not be used in courts or that their use should not be encouraged. To the contrary, the use of all 11 official languages in our courts should be something that the legal profession should positively support. It is a constitutional imperative.
[45] In ex parte matters, or in matters where it is known that all the parties are Afrikaans speaking, there is nothing inappropriate in the use of Afrikaans. In fact, it would be somewhat contrived and awkward not to use Afrikaans in such settings. The use of Afrikaans in such a context, where it does not offend or inconvenience, should be encouraged.
[46] The Afrikaans speaking community should also not be hamstrung because there appears to be a lack of language activism amongst speakers of indigenous languages. Language activism is deeply rooted in the socio-political fibre of many Afrikaans speaking South Africans, and this is most certainly not something to object to. Indigenous language speakers would do well to champion their constitutional language rights and to insist that it be used in courts as a primary language, and not only as a secondary translated language. But its use must be practical.
[47] The use of language in courts cannot be compared with the situation where an individual citizen insists on being served by an organ of state in the official language of her choice. In court proceedings, there are other people involved, such as opposing litigants, witnesses, judicial officers, assessors and attending public.
[48] Ultimately, the issue around language is something where an urgent discussion is needed in the legal community, and the inappropriate use of language in correspondence and pleadings can also not go without comment and some measure of censure.'

It seems there was an account in the costs order for both the use of Afrikaans and the use of the wrong court. The case still leaves practitioners met with Afrikaans pleadings in limbo. If a summons is in Afrikaans and no translation is provided, should the respondent or a litigant responding to pleadings which were in Afrikaans give notice of and set down an exception that the opponent's pleadings are vague and embarrassing and perhaps also do not set forth a cause of action? After all, in the language of records of the courts, English, this seems to be the case, if the chief justice's diktat is to be deemed valid by a judge in a particular case.

The matter is further complicated by whether the chief justice even had the power to declare as he did. AfriForum vehemently denies this:

'An apparent decision to make English the only language of record in SA’s high courts will have grave implications for access to justice.
On April 16, the Sunday Times reported that the heads of courts had decided to make English the only official language of record in South African high courts.
The heads of courts are all judges president of the divisions of the high courts under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Correspondence was sent to the office of the chief justice on April 21, asking for an explanation on how such a decision was made and on what authority. To date, we have not received a response, hence our decision to write this open letter.

According to subsection 8(3)(b) and subsection 8(6) of the Superior Courts Act, the chief justice is not conferred with the powers that determine the language of record in South African high courts, regardless of whether or not the chief justice enjoyed the majority of support from the heads of courts as required by section 8(5) (a).
It is alarming that this alleged decision was made public in a national newspaper. However, it failed to appear in the Government Gazette, according to our research. This suggests that there was no constitutional or legislative authority enabling the chief justice to change the language of record in high courts and that such a decision can only be made by the executive, subject to Parliament’s oversight.
According to the Constitution, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of African languages. Furthermore, all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem. These are the provisions that you, as chief justice, along with the heads of courts, must enforce and protect. In this light, we question how having English as the sole official language of record elevates the status of African languages, and reverses their historically diminished use.
The alleged decision instead elevates English to a superofficial language, contrary to constitutional provisions and, in doing so, undermines the rule of law.
The alleged decision transitions from a de facto bilingual language of record to a monolingual position. This weakens the argument for a linguistically inclusive legal system and undermines the principles of linguistic diversity and the basic right of access to courts, as protected in the Constitution. It inter alia compounds the cost for African language mother-tongue-speaking civil litigants whose trials are prolonged because of the involvement of interpreters and, possibly, translation services.
An exclusionary decision
Moreover, we question how this decision is constitutionally sound, with regards to an accused person’s language right. We firmly believe the alleged decision discriminates unfairly against accused persons on grounds of language, in terms of section 9(3) of the Constitution and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, with specific reference to the requirement to promote diversity.
We question why no public participation or meaningful engagement was undertaken regarding using English as the sole official language of record. What motivated the decision and whose interests does this serve? It is our opinion that this is not to the benefit of linguistic inclusivity and the promotion of multilingualism, but rather an exclusionary decision that hinders access to justice.
The alleged decision to remove Afrikaans (and, by implication, negate all African languages) alongside English as a language of record is conflicted in light of the dictum in the case of Ermelo (2010), where the Constitutional Court held that: “... when a learner already enjoys the benefit of being taught in an official language of choice, the state bears the negative duty not to take away or diminish the right without appropriate justification”.
The same principle applies to litigants. Therefore, on what grounds is this justifiable? Is it possibly based on the kneejerk reaction of Afrikaans being used as a tool of oppression and discrimination? If so, how do you justify retaining English, a colonial language? And if it is an oppressive status quo the honourable chief justice is trying to reverse, why not elevate the African languages to languages of record? This would be constitutional and transformative.
According to the 2011 national census, only 9.6% of the population speaks English as their mother tongue. We question whether Legal Aid SA’s language survey last year, in which statistics proved that English was not the primary spoken language in civil matters across all provinces, was considered. In fact, the primary spoken languages across the provinces for civil cases were recorded at 21% isiZulu, 20% Afrikaans and 16% isiXhosa.
Similarly in criminal cases, for litigants, English was not the primary language spoken by the majority of people in the nine provinces. The primary spoken languages in criminal matters were 24% isiZulu, 22% Afrikaans and 20% isiXhosa.
The English proficiency statistics in criminal cases illustrate that, in all provinces, litigants’ proficiency in understanding, speaking, reading and writing English is either poor or satisfactory. Were these statistics considered and, if so, how is the alleged decision justifiable against these numbers? Research has proven that multilingualism is a resource and that budgetary constraints are a red herring.
We are suggesting that the alleged decision is not transformative and transparent, in line with the values enshrined in the Constitution.
We further suggest that a process of meaningful engagement and consultation be undertaken with all relevant stakeholders before making a final recommendation to the executive.
Furthermore, it is suggested that the office of the honourable chief justice prepare a proper language management plan for the various high courts to accommodate the use of the official languages in the various regions, in compliance with constitutional prescripts. It presently suggests a misinformed top-down decision, which ignores South Africa’s multilingual reality.
Zakeera Docrat is a master’s student in African languages at Rhodes University;
Professor Russell H Kaschula chairs the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University;
Cerneels JA Lourens is a director at Lourens Attorneys;
Alana Bailey is deputy chief executive of AfriForum;
Annelise de Vries is language planning coordinator at AfriForum;
Professor Monwabisi K Ralarala is director of the Fundani Language Centre at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology' (City Press, 17/09/2017).

And so, uncertainty, overall, remains. I would still consider that if no translation of the pleadings is provided by the litigant using Afrikaans, that this could be vague and embarrassing. What other rules can a party rely upon? The above decision does set out that it would be unjust to force the litigant who litigates in English to translate the other party's pleadings at their own cost, and seems to use the costs order to somewhat punish the user of Afrikaans for various means of it wasting time in the litigation. Notably, however, this decision does not take account of the diktat of the chief justice, and seems to interpret language in a completely different manner than such sets out.

Nothing said herein should be relied upon as legal advice. For such, please see your attorney, and fully appraise them of your matter in consultation with same.

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