South African Law Reform Commission by Danielle Dombrow, 15 March 2011

We began our first day in Pretoria with a visit to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development with a representative from the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC).  The Commission was established in 1973 by public act for the purpose of promoting law reform on a variety of issues and submitting draft legislation to Parliament.  Roneal van Zyl, researcher and Acting Assistant to the Secretariat of the SALRC, greeted the John Marshall delegation warmly and eager to share information about their organization.
The SALRC researches a variety of legal issues with the objective of the development, improvement, modernization, and reform of South African laws.  It is an interdepartmental, semi-governmental organization whose reports and draft legislation are submitted to parliament for review.  Members of the Commission are appointed by the President of South Africa to serve for a period of five years.  One of the first questions that arose from the John Marshall delegation was whether issues such as political clout had an impact on the selection of appointees.  Ms. van Zyl replied, “that’s one of those questions you shouldn’t ask a public servant like me!” which garnered much laughter from the group.  She proceeded to explain that, like any organization with appointees, such politics are inevitable; however, the body itself is objective and comprised of a diverse group of Judges, attorneys, advocates, and academics.  For example, one current member is the Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town.

One of the most interesting aspects of SALRC’s program is that they elicit public participation throughout their process, including the decision about which issues to research and report on.  They create a program which prioritizes which issues to research, including those submitted by the public.  In contrast, our comparable U.S. counterpart, the Congressional Research Service, is not open to public participation and their reports and documents are classified as private (although they are often linked).

SALRC has been successful in eliciting public participation in the law reform process.  Interestingly, we learned that one of their recent research projects came from a suggestion from a citizen who had a wife with Alzheimer’s disease, which prompted an investigation into law reform regarding assisted decision making for persons with impaired decision making abilities or legal incapacity.

The most striking theme of the presentation about the SALRC’s work was the focus on ensuring that the law in South Africa protects the rights of the people enshrined in their Constitution.  Human Dignity is the pinnacle of such rights in South Africa, and the fact that the Commission actively engages the public in law reform is just one example of how South African organizations promote human rights.  All of the SALRC’s Reports are available on their website at: http://www.justice.gov.za/salrc/.

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