Cape Town - Lawmakers finalised the Constitution 17th Amendment Bill on Thursday after agreeing to extend the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court to hear any matter that it deems to raise an arguable point of law in the public interest.

“The increased jurisdiction confirms that the Constitutional Court is the highest court in the land,” Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice said in the report it adopted to table to the National Assembly, where the bill is expected to be passed on Tuesday.

The bill simultaneously restricts the power of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) by retracting its jurisdiction to review decisions of the Labour Appeals Court and the Competition Appeal Court, in line with existing labour legislation.

This particular amendment, which changes section 168 of the Constitution, was agreed after considerable debate among members of the committee and a submission from the judges of the SCA that it was unnecessary.

MPs argued that it was necessary to remove labour and competition appeals from the court because the current system allowed cases to be dragged out with potentially dire economic consequences.

However, opposition MPs raised concerns that the wording of the amendment might be unconstitutional in that it allows the jurisdiction of the SCA to be curtailed by an act of Parliament.

In the end, the agreed on a narrowly-worded amendment which stated this to be the case “in respect of labour and competition matters to such extent as may be determined by an act of Parliament”.

The bill is intended to settle the apex court debate which ensued after the creation of the Constitutional Court.

But ruling party MPS conceded that they had adopted a conservative approach which still sought to define the scope of the Constitutional Court in law and to largely preserve the special status of the SCA as the Bench that hears high court appeals.

Doing otherwise would effectively have “collapsed” the SCA, they said.

Legal experts argued in public hearings last year that such a step would not be wise, and said the special expertise of the SCA should be retained and the Constitutional Court allowed to focus on developing constitutional law. - Sapa