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Van Huyssteen and Others NNO v. Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and Others

last modified Aug 22, 2012 08:58 AM

Case number:
6570/95
Country:
South Africa
Date of decision:
28 June 1996
Court / Arbiter:
High Court, Eastern Cape Provincial Division (at time of decision, court of general jurisdiction; appealable to Supreme Court) ( First instance )

Relevant law :
Interim Constitution of 1993, Section 23 (right to information; currently codified under Section 32 of the 1996 Constitution) ( Constitution )

Decision:

A constitutional provision (retained in the current constitution) that every person has a right to information that is “required” for the exercise or protection of any of his or her rights should be interpreted to mean “reasonably required”.


Keywords:
Constitution
Contracts / Agreements (use of public funds, negotiations)
Environment / Natural resources (including natural resource management, environmental impact)

Case details:

Facts

The Saldanha Steel Company proposed to build a steel mill on a portion of farmland near the Langebaan Lagoon and applied for a rezoning of the land with the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (the Minister). The W Trust owned a parcel of land across the lagoon from the steel mill site. Van Huyssteen, as trustee, and two other trustees opposed the rezoning on the grounds that the mill would be environmentally undesirable and would devalue the trust property. Relying on Section 23 of the Constitution, they requested access to copies of all documentation relating to the proposed steel mill.

The Minister voluntarily made the documents available before the hearing. However, in the present case the Minister contested that even though he disclosed the documents, the trustees did not have a right to them. Consequently, he argued that the trustees were not entitled to have their costs in seeking the documents paid.

Decision

Section 23 of the Interim Constitution (which was retained as section 32 of the current, 1996 Constitution) provides that “every person shall have the right to access all information held by the state or any of its organs at any level of government in so far as such information is required for the exercise or protection of any of his or her rights.” The court emphasized that the word “required” has been interpreted to mean “reasonably required.” Nortje and Another v. Attorney-General, Cape, and Another 1995 (2) SA 460 (C) (1995 (1) SACR 446). The court thus ruled that, under Section 23, the applicants reasonably required the re-zoning documents filed with the Minister for the purpose of protecting their rights to the trust property. The property value was potentially threatened by the proposed mill, and the documents were necessary to exercise the trustees’ rights to object to the rezoning. Consequently, the court ordered the Minister to pay the applicants’ costs in seeking the documents.

Note

This case, together with Claase v.  Information Officer of South African Airways, is referred to in order to demonstrate that the term “any rights” (in both the Interim and 1996 Constitution) is not limited to fundamental rights protected in Chapter 3 of the Constitution (the South African Bill of Rights).

Resources:

Judgment of the Court.