Lucas Steyn 1974


Lucas Cornelius Steyn was born on 21st December, 1903 in the district of Viljoenskroon in the Orange Free State. In the last seven decades, he has had a rich and varied life, initially devoted to the Public Service, and, since his elevation to the bench more than twenty years ago, devoted to the State and our country in broader perspective: name­ly to the extension of Roman-Dutch legal principles with a view to strengthening our modern system of law in its historical context. Intellectually he has been eminently suited to this task. Outside the walls of the university, he has reached the pinnacle of academic achievement.

After his schooling at Kroonstad. L. C. Steyn had an outstanding academic career at the University of Stellenbosch, where he was awarded the degrees of B.A. and LL.B. Shortly thereafter he was appointed lecturer in law at the University of Stellenbosch. One year later he entered the practice of the law as professional assistant to the Attorney­General of South-West Africa. However, he retained his interest in academic legal study and obtained the LL.D. degree at the University of Stellenbosch in 1931. His thesis dealt with liability for unlawful official acts. In the same year he was appointed Attorney-General of the mandated territory of South-West Africa.

Two years later he became legal adviser to the Department of Foreign Affairs and, shortly there­after, government law-adviser in the Department of Justice. At this time, he also rendered competent service as legal draftsman. After attaining the status of senior counsel, Dr Steyn became senior government law­adviser. His book, "Die Uitleg van Wette" was published in 1946. It proved to be a legal work of high merit which has since seen a second and a third edition. It was and is universally recognised as an authoritative exposition of the rules of our common law in this field.

During the period from 1946 to 1949 Dr Steyn served as one of South Africa's representatives at the United Nations. When the South-West Africa dispute was submitted to the International Court of Justice in 1950, he very ably put South Africa's case to this high international tribunal.

For the twenty years following 1951 the Hon. Dr Steyn has, in his capacity as a judge, rendered outstanding service to the administration of justice in South Africa. Although not appointed from the ranks of practising advocates, he was soon held in high esteem by everyone directly or indirectly concerned with the administration of justice.

After a comparatively brief period of approximately four years as judge of first instance, he was appointed judge of appeal. In 1959 he reached the apex of his career, when he was appointed Chief Justice of South Africa. In the appellate division of the Supreme Court, he made a significant academic contribution to our legal system.

During his long tenure of office in this court, be often had occasion to make creative contributions to the solution of fundamental problems in many branches of our law - private as well as public. Through his work the prin­ciples of our law have in many respects been more clearly defined. In the execution of this task, he showed himself a champion of pure Roman­-Dutch legal principles, and he opposed the injudicious application of doctrines or principles derived from foreign legal systems.

Nevertheless he did not reject the comparative-law approach and its occasional useful role in our legal system. His balanced attitude appears from the follow­ing quotation from one of his leading judgments: "Vergelykende oor­weging kan, soos ten oorvloede uit talle van ons gewysdes en regs­verhandelinge blyk, 'n besondere dienstige middel wees om tot helder­heid te geraak omtrent die beste toepassing, aanpassing of uitbouing van ons eie regsbeginsels. Om die bevrugtende inwerking van verwante regstelsels te wil uitsluit, sou nie slegs 'n onbegonne taak wees nie, maar oak 'n verarmende kortsigtigheid waaraan ek geen deel sou wil he nie. Maar dit is een ding om 'n antler reg te ondersoek ten einde ans eie meer doeltreffend te kan hanteer, en 'n gans antler saak om 'n antler reg te benader asof dit 'n ingelyfde deel van ans erkende regs­bronne is''. 

Dr Steyn has been a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary Roman-Dutch Law since 1937. Over a period of years, articles from his pen have often been published in this journal.

Since 1955, he has been a member of the committee of eminent jurists com­prising the executive of the Vereniging Hugo de Groot. He later be­came chairman of this committee. He also played a significant part in promoting the translation of our Roman-Dutch legal authorities from Latin and served for many years as chairman of the committee con­cerned with rendering our common law sources accessible.

In 1950 he became a member of the Law Revision Committee. For a considerable time until his retirement from the bench he was chairman of this com­mittee. He is a full member of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns - a connection dating back to 1947.

Since his appointment as Chief Justice, the Hon. Dr L. C. Steyn has on several occasions acted as Officer Administering the Government. In 1962 his alma mater conferred an honorary doctorate on him. 

The voluntary premature retirement of the Hon. Dr Steyn as Chief Justice, two years before the appointed time, was regretted by the authorities, legal practitioners and academics from different legal schools in South Africa. In recognition of his outstanding achievements in the legal sphere, the Justice Society awarded him its Justice Medal…