JOHANNESBURG - Justice Conrad Seagroatt has described the unattributed use of a judgment of his, by acting National Director of Public Prosecutions Moketedi Mpshe, as "sloppy and undisciplined." This follows on from the earlier revelation (see here) that Mpshe had extensively plagiarised a 2002 ruling by the now retired Hong Kong high court judge in order to justify his decision to drop charges against ANC president Jacob Zuma.
Justice Seagroatt was asked for his response to the controversy by the journalist Gill Moodie who tracked him down through the Oxford alumni network. She published his response on her blog http://www.grubstreet.co.za/. Asked how he felt at his judgment being used in such a fashion Seagroatt commented:
"I would have expected proper attribution if only because of the professional legal tradition and convention. I have not seen the full text of Mpshe's decision but relying on [James] Myburgh's schedule of extracts, where Mpshe has directly lifted sentences or paragraphs from my judgement, it would have been proper to identify the author.
He correctly makes reference to principles enunciated by the respective judges in R v Derby Crown Court ex parte Brooks, Jago v District Court of N.S.W., Connelly v DPP, R v Latif, R v Martin, and R v Hui Chi Ming. Since the Acting National Director of Public Prosecutions structured his statement around my judgement - or so it seems on the basis of the extracts quoted by Myburgh - it was nonetheless sloppy and undisciplined to put the statement forward as emanating from his own reasoning.
These days plagiarism is an oft-used word and discipline in universities, for example, has been lax. It is, however, tightening. Even an 'A' level student would be expected to give proper attribution. When I was a student it was occasionally the resort of a bold historian to quote ‘imaginatively' from an identified authority. In short, if a judgement is used, it should be properly attributed."
Asked by Moodie whether he thought Mpshe's unattributed use of his judgment constituted plagiarism Seagroatt replied:
"Strictly speaking it is plagiarism, but lawyers do not get worked up over such things. An imaginative lawyer will often quote the language of another advocate/judge without adding the cumbersome ‘as X said in A v B'. However, a senior government lawyer making a statement in support of a decision of some importance should cite properly, cases or judgements used, if only to lend weight to his own. Mpshe may have thought that the scattered references to the cases cited and incorporated into the text of argument or ‘ratio decidendi' were sufficient. As I have said, that was a sloppy approach which even a law student would be tutored against."
Seagroatt commented that he was surprised to see his judgment described as an "obscure ruling" by Myburgh. "I was asked to deliver a paper on the legal issues involved at the International Bar Conference of 2003 in Brussels and it is still a ‘hot issue' in Hong Kong (I am informed at a distance)."
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