Building Joburg's legal precinct

Posted On Tuesday, 12 July 2005 02:00 Published by
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It has had a chequered history, and now there are plans to upgrade the city's legal precinct to restore its former glory
By Neil Fraser

"Johannesburg is a colonial city, full of the exaggerated independence of the self-made. The fastidiousness which comes from culture and tradition, the humour which springs from unshaken confidence must necessarily be absent in a municipality which is still diffident, still largely uneducated."
John Buchan, 1903

As the mining camp rapidly became a mining town, Johannesburg's legal status was proclaimed as part of the circuit of the Hooggeregshof van de Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek.

In practice, however, it was lucky to receive two visits a year. Yet growth in population brought growth in litigation. Within a very short space of time, circuit courts began to sit once a month. Yet even these were unable to cope and they rapidly developed into one continuous court.

By 1889 the mining camp for all practical purposes had become a local division.

One judge, EJP Jorissen, (Jorissen Street, in Braamfontein was named for him) sat daily, from seven in the morning until nine at night in an attempt to handle the sheer volume of work. His court was the brick and mud post office building in Market Street.


Jorissen's entry into law was rather unusual. He was actually a doctor of divinity but worked as a journalist in Cape Town. He then applied for and became director of education in the then Transvaal. However, by the time he arrived in Pretoria from the Cape, the position had been given to someone else and he was offered the post of attorney-general as compensation.

He knew no law but spent some weeks studying the major legal text books of the time, was examined by the Judicial Board and was declared "duly qualified in law". He then joined the Transvaal Bench.

The area bounded today by Small, Jeppe, Von Brandis and Pritchard streets was known in 1892 as Church Square as there was a small Dutch Reformed Church on the site. This was quite quickly replaced with a larger building. The first cost of £200, the second, £2 000. It was later bought by the government and the open area next to the church was renamed Government Square.

Later, it was again renamed to honour Carel von Brandis, the first landrost of Johannesburg. Farmers and prospectors camped on the balance of the square but it later became the site for Johannesburg's first synagogue.


In front of the church was a row of shops, including a cycle shop owned by the Hunt Brothers, later to become Williams Hunt & Co. Within a few years the camp's first school was built next to the church. The church building itself had a variety of uses - it was a bakery, a lecture hall, a polling station during elections and the offices of the Rand Aid Association.

When the government announced its intention to clear the site for the building of law courts there was a strong outcry (I wish I could say the same about the current plans regarding the proposed mutilation of Market Square, now Beyers Naude Gardens).

However, the government was not interested in what the people had to say and demolitions began in 1909. Gerhard-Mark van der Waal (From Mining Camp to Metropolis), talking of the City Hall and the supreme court, points out that, "A government building (which fills a function in the community) is built on a square which could be the focal point of the community.

"The design of the building relates to a common ideal, but the building withdraws into its own isolation. At the same time the impersonal architectural style repels rather than invites emotional involvement." Mmmm. Ja, well.

North of the court a fire station had previously been built in 1909. It was Fire Brigade Headquarters until 1932, when it was demolished to make way for the Jeppe Street Post Office. This was built between 1933 and 1935 and was, in fact, the central Witwatersrand sorting depot for post carried by mail trains, mail ships and air carriers, hence the wording above the main entrance, "Per Terram, Per Mare, Per Aera".

Von Brandis Square

The law court building that was then built south of the post office was called the new law courts. It was completed in 1911. A newspaper report of the time recorded that, "few branches of the public service have been more badly housed throughout South Africa than the High Courts of Justice but in no town has the provision been inferior to that in Johannesburg.

"However, the new buildings in process of erection on Von Brandis Square will be worthy of the purpose they are to serve. They will be dignified, commodious and well equipped in every respect. Externally the building, which is to cost £135 000, will be very handsome, its elevations being designed according to an adaptation of the Italian Renaissance, still the style will be restrained, avoiding over-ornateness.

"The designers of the New Rand High Court (the Transvaal Public Works Department) have seen to it that there shall be nothing wanting to meet the convenience and enhance the comfort of judges, counsel, solicitors, jurors, witnesses and (last, but by no means least in these days of advancing humanitarianism) the prisoners ... Henceforth judges will dispense justice in a building worthy of the dignity of the law, and worthy of the great and growing city which it is to adorn."

This building contains some unique features, like its stained glass window and coat of arms, the latter one of only two in the city (the other being in the Rissik Street Post Office). These two coats of arms were only in existence for a short time, having been superceded by the Union of South Africa coat of arms.

The floor also is embedded with brass strips that provide the accurate standard measurement of 100 Cape Feet.

Supreme court

It was not long before the building became too small to cope with the rapidly increasing volumes of legal work and major internal alterations were undertaken to increase the number of courts to 10. Joeys' dramatic population explosion continued to put pressure on the courts and temporary facilities and judges offices had to be provided elsewhere, I believe in the Mutual and Federal building in Plein Street.

Eventually, a new high rise, modern building containing additional courts and judges offices was slotted between the post office and the old supreme court, forming quite a dramatic backdrop to what Van Der Waal describes as, "the horizontal blocklike shape with its accentuated corners, and the dominant section of the main entrance with its enormous dome".

However, along with the rest of the central business district, the area around the court started to degenerate severely during the early 1990s. A taxi rank in Von Brandis Street, informal traders and a high level of grime followed. By the end of the decade many of the advocates housed in the two office buildings to the south of the court had moved to Sandton and the future of the area was uncertain.

An informal improvement district was established to provide security and cleaning but this could be no more than a holding operation. Lawyer and property investor Gerald Olitzki, the visionary behind the Gandhi Square upgrade, believed that the area could be revitalised in much the same way as Gandhi Square. This was done by bringing together the various property owners in the area with the City council for funding.

A number of designs were developed and in-principle agreement reached when the two legal office blocks were sold, Innes Chambers to the government to house the prosecuting authority and Schreiner Chambers to a consortium of investors.


The sale put the project considerably back in time and negotiations had to start afresh. By all accounts good progress has been made with a renewed commitment from the new players and hopefully work will commence later this year.
As with the other public space upgrades that have taken place as part of public-private regeneration efforts (Gandhi Square, Main Street, Braamfontein and so on), the focus will be on creating a safe, clean and pleasant environment.

The consortium owners of Schreiner Chambers tell me they have some excellent facilities lined up that will have a positive effect on the area. The establishment of a legal club within the building will undoubtedly help to retain and, hopefully, attract some of the legal profession back to the area.

Now known as the high court (the supreme court being the Constitutional Court), the building deserves to be in a dignified setting, as is the case all over the world.

Johannesburg News Agency

Publisher: Johannesburg News Agency
Source: Inet Bridge

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