New act: administrators accountable for actions

15 September 2003
Aimed at ensuring a more effective and people-centred administration, the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (AJA) is extremely important as it makes sectors of government, institutions and enterprises accountable to people for its actions while ensuring South Africa's democracy continues to grow.

This is according to Professor Hugh Corder, Dean of the Law Faculty, who was speaking at the September 8 Open Planning Forum where he broadly outlined this legal regime as well as its implications for UCT.

The right to just administrative action as contained in section 33 of the Constitution, requires that all administrative action be "lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair", and it places an obligation on administrators to give reasons for their decisions, especially those that affect people negatively.

Corder pointed out that the duties, which match this right, are incumbent on all those who exercise public power and would include those working at a public university, either in academic leadership or administrative roles.

Section 33 also required that the government pass a law setting out the details of this right and, as a result, the AJA was brought into effect in February 2000.

"An administrative action occurs whenever the administration takes a decision that affects people's rights," said Corder. "An example of an administrative action at UCT would be when a person applies to be admitted to study at the university. The faculty concerned would then be required to make a decision whether to admit that person or not.

"Similarly, failure to take a decision can also amount to administrative action. For example, if someone applied to study at UCT but their application form was never processed," he added.

Corder explained that South Africa's past was fraught with situations where the government took decisions that affected people's lives without really explaining what they were doing. By clearly setting out the rights people have, the AJA makes sure the administration acts fairly and that people know why decisions are taken.

"It also gives people a chance to have their side of the story heard before any decision is taken," he said. "In this way, the AJA makes sure that the administration works in a way that is transparent and accountable for its actions."

The AJA requires administrators to follow fair procedures when taking decisions and to clearly explain the reasons for their decisions. It also requires that administrators inform people about their right to an internal appeal or review, as well as their right to request written reasons for their decisions.

Anyone can request reasons for decisions that adversely affect their rights. Sometimes, these reasons will be given without a person having to request them. If not, they must request written reasons within 90 calendar days of being informed of the decision. The Act also says administrators must provide "adequate" reasons within 90 days of receiving the request.

"Administrators cannot just say that they thought about the matter and reached their decision," said Corder. "They must say how they reached it and if the person requesting reasons has raised questions, these must all be answered."

Commenting on Corder's presentation, UCT's Registrar, Hugh Amoore, said that the University was likely to be challenged most often when it came to the issue of readmission.

He said: "We prescribe minimum requirements for readmission and if these are not met, then we may refuse to readmit a student. Readmission is not, therefore, automatic. But we need to ensure that our decisions are lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair." Amoore went on to say that UCT would also have to be mindful when it made decisions that affected the interests of the public.

In these instances, the university would be required to give notice of its intention, allow the public a reasonable opportunity to comment and take the public's comments and recommendations into account when acting.

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