Judicial powers are exercised by a formal court system. This comprises a hierarchy of courts, with different levels having jurisdiction.

The Small Claims Courts deal with claims with a small monetary value, where litigants appear personally and where proceedings are relatively informal, providing swift and effective relief.

The lower courts are called Magistrate's Courts and these have jurisdiction over most criminal cases and civil cases where the amount in dispute is relatively low. Magistrates are officials of the Department of Justice, and are not required to be university graduates. They have limited autonomy, being employees of the State.

The higher court is called the Supreme Court. It is divided into a number of Provincial Divisions. Some of these also have local sub-divisions. Judges, appointed by the Minister of Justice, are usually appointed from the ranks of practising senior advocates. They enjoy a higher degree of autonomy, independence and respect. The Supreme Court enjoys original jurisdiction in respect of criminal matters and civil matters, and has appellate jurisdiction in respect of matters originally heard in the Magistrate's Courts and matters heard by single judges in the Supreme Court.

The highest court in South Africa for matters other than constitutional ones is the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. This is situated in Bloemfontein, and has appellate jurisdiction only. Its judgements are binding on all other Courts.

Under the interim constitution there is a Constitutional Court which has jurisdiction throughout South Africa as a court of final instance over all matters relating to the interpretation, protection and enforcement of the provisions of the interim constitution. Some constitutional disputes will first be heard by the Provincial Divisions of the Supreme Court. Other constitutional matters are exclusively in the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court.

Although many commercial contracts are specifically made subject to the jurisdiction of the Magistrate's Court (which can exercise that jurisdiction in such cases, even though such disputes would normally fall outside its jurisdiction), as a general rule matters of any import will be heard in the Supreme Court. The jurisdiction of the Magistrate's Court has been substantially increased recently, and many more commercial matters will now fall within that jurisdiction.

For further information please contact: 

Werksmans Attorneys 

Werksmans Chambers, 22 Girton Road, Parktown, Johannesburg 2193 
P.O. Box 927, Johannesburg 2000 South Africa

Enquiries:        Mr Charles Butler
Telephone         27 (011) 488-0000
Telefax           27 (011) 484-3100/3200
E-Mail Address    cbutler@werksmans.co.za