Robert Henney in his Chambers
Robert Henney in his Chambers

Henney is up for a challenge

By Time of article published Apr 21, 2011

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High Court Writer

A CHALLENGE is nothing new for Robert Henney, the Judicial Service Commission’s (JSC) latest recommendation for appointment to the Western Cape Bench.

He endured being evicted from his family home in Athlone as a child, being robbed at knifepoint aboard a train, and pushing wheelbarrows as a general labourer during holidays to earn money.

So it comes as no surprise that this 47-year-old husband and father of two is confident that he can weather the storms that may come his way if appointed as a judge.

While the JSC announced yesterday that it had recommended Henney to be appointed as a judge, President Jacob Zuma has not yet formally appointed him.

In making the recommendation, the JSC said more black and female candidates should apply for judicial vacancies if it were to fulfil its constitutional mandate to give consideration to the need of the judiciary to reflect the racial and gender composition of South Africa.

And Henney couldn’t agree more.

“It is something that has to be done… transformation enhances the credibility of the justice system,” he said.

But the Cape Bar Council has been unhappy with the process and said earlier this week that it was considering taking the JSC to court. It is alleging irregularities in appointing judges to the Western Cape High Court.

If it goes ahead with legal action and wins the case, the litigation could effectively unseat a judge of the Western Cape High Court.

The council believed the JSC selection meeting was unconstitutional as not all 13 members were present during the selection process last week.

Cape Bar Council chairman Alasdair Sholto-Douglas said council members had expressed their concern at the council’s annual general meeting last night.

“Immediately after the AGM, the new bar council met and resolved to seek independent legal advice on the legal issues involved. Once we have that, we will decide what to do,” he said.

Henney, while not directly addressing the council’s concerns, said the public could identify with judicial officers who came from previously disadvantaged and marginalised communities.

He said competent black and female legal practitioners should be identified and then developed and mentored to enable them to be in better positions to apply for vacancies on the Bench.

Henney is an experienced judicial officer having been appointed a District Court Magistrate 21 years ago.

He said he always knew that he wanted to study law but couldn’t afford it.

So, with determination and a R50 note he received from his mother, he enrolled at UWC’s law school without telling her.

“It was actually reckless of me but I had to take the chance,” he said.

And, since that day, he hasn’t looked back.

For the first two years of his studies, he was sponsored by friends and relatives.

He obtained a government bursary in his third year.

While his goal was to be a lawyer who fought for the poor, he was forced to take up employment as a prosecutor once he had qualified – a condition of the bursary was that he would work for the State.

Three years later, in 1990, he was appointed as a magistrate and in 1999 he became a regional magistrate at the Wynberg Regional Court, where he was tasked with presiding over high-profile urban terror cases. In 2007, he was appointed Regional Court President.

But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. “You can never deny your background,” he said.

As for the future, Henney is intent on staying focused and meeting the challenges that come with being a judge.

He said he envisioned a judge as someone who had integrity and who was humble, honest and “fiercely independent”.

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