Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson

Date of Birth

24 November 1931


1 December 2012


B Com (1952) (University of the Witwatersrand), LLB cum laude (1954) (University of the Witwatersrand)

History at the Court:

Appointed: 1994

President of the Constitutional Court: June 1994 – November 2001

Appointed as Chief Justice: November 2001

Retired: 31 May 2005

Brief biography

Justice Chaskalson was appointed by President Nelson Mandela in June 1994 to be the first President of South Africa’s new Constitutional Court and was Chief Justice of South Africa from November 2001 until his retirement in 2005.

During his time at the University of the Witwatersrand, he was a member of the university’s football team and was selected for the Combined South African Universities football team in 1952.

He was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in May 1956 and took silk in July 1971. During his career at the Bar he appeared as counsel on behalf of members of the liberation movements in several major political trials between 1960 and 1994, including the Rivonia Trial in 1963/1964 at which President Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He also appeared as counsel in several major commercial disputes.

He was a member of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1967 to 1971 and from 1973 to 1984. He also held the position of chairman of the Johannesburg Bar in 1976 and again in 1982. Justice Chaskalson was also a member, and later convenor, of the National Bar Examination Board from 1979 to 1991, and the vice chairman of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa from 1982 to 1987.

In 1978 he helped establish the Legal Resources Centre, and was its director from November 1978 until September 1993. During that period he was leading counsel in several cases in which successful challenges were launched by the Legal Resources Centre against the implementation of apartheid laws.

He was a member of the board of the Faculty of Law of the University of the Witwatersrand from 1979 to 1999, an honorary professor of law at the university from 1981 to 1995 and a member of its board for the Centre for Applied Legal Studies from 1979 to 1994.

From 1980 to 1991 Justice Chaskalson was a member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights. He was also the vice-chairman of the International Legal Aid Division of the International Bar Association from 1983 to 1993 and chairman of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for South Africa from 1988 to 1993.

He was a member of the Judicial Service Commission from 1994 until 2005, and its chairperson from 21 November 2001 until his retirement on 31 May 2005.

Justice Chaskalson was elected as an honorary member of the Bar Association of the City of New York in 1985, the Boston Bar Association in 1991 and the Johannesburg Bar in 2002.

He was a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York from 1987 to 1988, and again in 2004, and was also a Distinguished Global Fellow at New York University School of Law.

Justice Chaskalson was a consultant to the Namibian Constituent Assembly in connection with the drafting of the Constitution of Namibia, a consultant to the African National Congress on constitutional issues from April 1990 to April 1994, and served as a member of the Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues, appointed by the Multi Party Negotiating Forum in May 1993 to give advice on constitutional matters to the Forum (which negotiated the transition to democracy in South Africa), and to draft on its behalf the transitional constitution, which was finalised and adopted in December 1993.

He was the president of the International Commission of Jurists from 2004 to 2008. He was, further, the chairperson of a committee of senior judges appointed by the United Nations Environmental Programme to promote and develop judicial education on environmental law in all parts of the world.

Justice Chaskalson was the first chairperson of the Southern African Judges Commission and chaired the Eminent Jurists Panel appointed by the International Commission of Jurists to enquire into the impact of terrorism and counter-terrorism on the rule of law, human rights law, and where relevant, international humanitarian law. He was an elected member of the South African Academy of Science, a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, a trustee of the Legal Resources Trust, the Constitutional Court Trust, and the Constitution Hill Trust, and he was also a member of the board of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional Law.

He was awarded honorary doctorates by, among others:

·        the University of Natal;

·        the University of the Witwatersrand;

·        the University of Amsterdam;

·        the University of the Western Cape; and

·        the University of Pretoria.

He received the Premier Group Award for prestigious service by a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1983, the Claude Harris Leon Foundation award for community service and the Wits Alumni Honour Award for exceptional service to the community, both in 1984, was the joint recipient of the Human Rights Award for 1990 of the Foundation for Freedom and Human Rights, and received awards for his work in the promotion of human rights and constitutionalism from the General Council of the Bar of South Africa (the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award), from the Jewish Board of Deputies, from Rotary (the Paul Harris Award), from Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa, and from the Constitution Hill Trust. In 2004, he was the co-recipient with Justice Langa of the Peter Gruber Justice Prize, and in 2007 he was the co-recipient with Ms Wangari Maathai of the Nelson Mandela Award for Human Rights and Health.

In December 2002 he received the award of Supreme Counsellor of the Order of the Baobab in Gold (a national honour) for his service to the nation in respect of constitutionalism, human rights and democracy.

He participated in conferences and delivered lectures concerned with constitutional issues, human rights and legal services in South Africa,Australia, Austria, Bosnia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mauritius, Namibia, Netherlands,New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, United States of America, United Kingdom, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Justice Chaskalson died in Johannesburg on 1 December 2012.

Selection of Judgments written