Justice Arthur Chaskalson (1931 - 2012)
Chief Justice of South Africa (2001-2005)

Arthur 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 .On his retirement he was described by President Mbeki as a “giant among the architects of our democracy”.

He was born in Johannesburg on 24 November 1931 and was married to Dr Lorraine Chaskalson. Two children were born of the marriage – Matthew, born 12 August 1963 and Jerome, born 1 August 1967.

Justice Chaskalson was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand, B Com (1952), LLB cum laude (1954), 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 Mr. Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He also appeared as counsel in major commercial disputes.

In 1978 he helped establish the Legal Resources Centre, a non-profit organisation, which sought to use law to pursue justice and human rights in South Africa, 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 Johannesburg Bar Council from 1967 to 1971 and from 1973 to 1984, the Chairman of the Johannesburg Bar in 1976 and again in 1982, a member and later Convenor of the National Bar Examination Board (1979-1991), and the Vice Chairman of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa (1982-1987).

He was a member of the Board of the Faculty of Law of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg [1979 – 1999], an Honorary Professor of Law at that University from 1981 to 1995, a member of its board for the Centre for Applied Legal Studies from 1979 to 1994, a member of the National Council of Lawyers for Human Rights (1980-1991), Vice Chairman of the International Legal Aid Division of the International Bar Association (1983-1993) and Chairman of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for South Africa (1988-1993).

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. He was elected as an honorary member of the Bar Association of the City of New York in 1985, of the Boston Bar Association in 1991, and of the Johannesburg Bar in 2002. He was a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, 1987 - 1988, and again in 2004, and was a Distinguished Global Fellow at New York University School of Law.

He was a consultant to the Namibian Constituent Assembly in connection with the drafting of the Constitution of Namibia (December 1989-March 1990), a Consultant to the African National Congress on constitutional issues (April 1990-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, was 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, was the first chairperson of the Southern African Judges Commission, an association of the Chief Justices of Southern Africa, 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 a member of the board of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional Law.

He was awarded honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws by the University of Natal in 1986, the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990, Rhodes University in 1997, the University of Amsterdam in 2002, Port Elizabeth University in 2002, the University of South Africa in 2004, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria, both in 2006, and Stellenbosch University in 2008. 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, Berne, Switzerland, 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 Chief Justice Langa of the Peter Gruber Justice Prize, and in 2007 he was the co-recipient with Ms Wangari Maathai of the 2007 Nelson Mandela Award for Human Rights and Health.

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.

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

Justice Chaskalson died in Johannesburg on 1 December 2012.

Service on the Constitutional Court

  • Appointed by President Nelson Mandela as President of the Constitutional Court 1994 - 2001
  • Chief Justice 2001 - 2005


The Rule of Law: The importance of independent courts and legal professions 9 November 2012

Without fear, favour or prejudice:the courts, the constitution and transformation 26 January 2012

Obituaries and Tributes

Advocate Geoff Budlender SC “A tribute to Arthur Chaskalson” (taken from Ground up).

President Jacob Zuma: "Tribute to legal legend Arthur Chaskalson" (taken from SABC).

George Bizos SC: “The Arthur Chaskalson I knew”

5. Judge Edwin Cameron: “Chaskalson was a pillar of strength in my battle against HIV/AIDS”

Judge Dennis Davis: “Arthur Chaskalson 1931 – 2012: Lifetime devoted to justice”.

Janet Love (Legal Resources Centre National Director): “In memoriam of Arthur Chaskalson”.

For more obituaries and tributes Click Here


Mail & Guardian: “SA mourns former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson.” 3 December 2012

Daily Maverick “Death of a lion of the law, Arthur Chaskalson.” 3 December 2012

Times Live “Condolences pour in for Chaskalson.” 2 December 2012

Speech at the Judges’ conference to mark the inauguration of the new building for the Constitutional Court of South Africa "The vision of the South African Constitution"