City of Cape Town v SAHRC and others hearing
10 June 2020
Judgement reserved in Strandfontein matter
The Legal Resources Centre represented the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and 10 other respondents against an interdict brought by the City of Cape Town, yesterday. The City’s interdict sought to restrict the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) monitors from observing and reporting issues related to the Strandfontein Emergency Shelter and in essence, circumvent the statutory and constitutional mandate of the SAHRC. The Women Legal Centre and Centre for Applied Legal studies were amicus curiae in this matter.
In light of the site being decommissioned on 20 May 2020, the City argued that the matter was moot and conceded after questioning by the presiding Judge Desai, that the matter should be withdrawn. However, the City was steadfast on the issue of tendering costs incurred by the respondents in defending their rights. The City therefore argued the merits of the case only for the purposes of the cost order sought by the respondents.
The respondents, represented by the LRC, argued that City’s application is without merit and the issue at the heart of this case is whether the Court should be party to efforts by the City to shield its activities from scrutiny and accountability by local and international human rights defenders, as well as the body constitutionally established to monitor human rights. Counsel for the respondents concurred with questions posed earlier by Judge Desai on whether this application could be seen as an attempt to circumscribe the functioning of the SAHRC. The application raises constitutional issues of grave importance and the interdict sought by the City against a Chapter 9 institution is solely based on the City wishing to avoid accountability.
The orders sought by the City, as argued by counsel for the respondents, was overbroad and would impermissibly interfere with, and severely impinge upon the constitutional and statutory rights and obligations of the SAHRC and the remaining respondents, who represent local and international organisations committed to human rights protection. The respondents also argued that the allegations contained in the papers of the City often contained unfounded, defamatory and demonstratively false allegations and thus would merit a punitive costs order against the City.
The City’s case’s is targeted not only at an organ of state with stretched resources but also individuals, and seeks cost orders against all of the respondents. Counsel passionately argued that this application “sent a chilling message to human rights defenders – if you seek to hold the City accountable, you will be dragged into expensive and time-consuming litigation, and be left with no option but to respond or risk a personal costs order.” He went on to say that the City’s attempt to withdraw the application at this late stage would also “achieve the invidious purpose of all SLAPP suits – to effectively gag criticism in such a way that the matter never goes to court where it can be corrected by judges alive to such oppressive conduct.”
The City’s late withdrawal is to be deprecated, and the Court should either exercise its discretion to decline the City’s withdrawal, or allow the withdrawal but grant a costs order against the City to mark its displeasure with the City’s conduct in this matter.
Judgement is reserved.
Issued by the Legal Resources Centre
Tel: 011 038 9709 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org