Retired Judge Chris Nicholson explores current and historical issues affecting women in law with his first play, ‘Justice is a Woman’, which will be performed at Michaelhouse on May 23.   Sibusiso Ndlovu African News Agency (ANA)
Retired Judge Chris Nicholson explores current and historical issues affecting women in law with his first play, ‘Justice is a Woman’, which will be performed at Michaelhouse on May 23. Sibusiso Ndlovu African News Agency (ANA)

Judge tackles justice with play

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Apr 30, 2019

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Whether it’s the victim, the accused or the legal defenders, the role of women in the law courts of South Africa forms the body of retired Judge Chris Nicholson’s first play, Justice is a Woman.

The subtle layers in the production speak to issues of morality and integrity, as well as facing reality and highlighting current South African issues such as the #MeToo campaign.

Nicholson, who changed the course of South African history when he ruled that corruption charges against Jacob Zuma in 2008 were unlawful and so paved the way for his Zuma presidency, spoke to the Independent on Saturday this week about his new play, as well as the shocking revelations coming out of the Zondo Commission and an obscure 2000-year-old ban on women in law.

He explains that Justice is a Woman is a story of a female Master’s student who lays a case of molestation against her male university professor.

The lead character, a female attorney representing the professor, is faced with a moral dilemma which questions her values and threatens to tear her life apart.

“There is a surprising denouement at the end,” explains Nicholson, adding that the idea for the play was born from both the historical and present-day world of law.

Twenty years ago he was asked whether women had a role to play in law, or was it a male-only profession? This led him to delve into the history of women in law.

He points out that, somewhat ironically, the symbol for justice is Justicia, the Roman goddess of law, a woman, sometimes known as Lady Justice.

She holds the scales which measure, in a civil case, the balance of probabilities, while in criminal cases they would measure guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The sword she holds is to mete out justice, while the blindfold indicates justice should be equally provided for all, rich or poor.

Nicholson says he was fascinated by the story of a female pleader at a Roman court, known as Carfinia, about 2000 years ago.

She famously represented a prostitute and after she had annoyed the judge by showing him her derrière in a cheeky gesture, he prohibited women from acting as pleaders from that day onward.

“That prohibition went unchallenged for 2000 years,” says Nicholson, adding that the ancient biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders, which deals with how two witnesses can have entirely different versions of an event, is also weaved into his current-day storyline.

He worked on the play with Pietermaritzburg’s Paul Spence, who is also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“He helped me to work out how to put the story across in theatre style. It starts off with some humour, but becomes more serious.

“We are hoping it will raise a whole lot of questions. Women are making their way now in our courts and are just as good in any part of the law as men,” he says.

Nicholson is also still working on his book about the controversial Zuma corruption case for which he is so well-known.

“I still stand by my ruling. I’ve been working on the book and there’s so much material. In a sense, the story isn’t over yet,” he says.

Commenting on the testimony coming out of the current Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, he says: “It’s appalling... if we can just get rid of all the corruption”.

“The Zondo Commission is doing amazing stuff and we need to recover the money that was stolen. I believe that if we can address the corruption in this country, there’s a very bright future.”

Nicholson’s career, which covered 50 years, saw him tackle a number of human rights cases, including Harry Gwala’s defence, litigation against pass laws and oppression, the detention and maltreatment of political opponents under the apartheid regime, as well as cases concerning the right to antiretrovirals for prisoners, gay marriages and adoption.

He was also active in labour law, particularly for unfair dismissal.

“Many facts dribbled out during cases that fascinated me. I often spent my time researching topics that arose, so I decided to write books on the weekends. My stories often draw on factual occurrences that raise interesting moral dilemmas,” he says.

Justice is a Woman will launch at Michaelhouse, Balgowan, on May 23 and run until May 25. It then moves to Grace College, Hilton, from May 29 to 30 and then to the Hexagon Theatre, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus, from June 4 to 8.

Tickets are: R80 for adults, R50 pensioners and R40 pupils at Michaelhouse and Grace College. At the Hexagon Theatre, they are R130 for adults, R80 pensioners and R40 students. Tickets are also available at the door (cash only).

To book, visit or contact Paul Spence: [email protected]

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