Georgina Jephson has spent the last five years working on the biggest class action suit South Africa has ever seen. In mid-May 2016 in a ground-breaking judgment, the High Court in Johannesburg confirmed that there are sufficient common issues to proceed with a class action against the South African gold mining industry to seek damages for tens of thousands of gold mine workers with silicosis and tuberculosis.
Remarkable in itself, this particular class action suit raises many new and complex issues, primarily because class actions are relatively new in South Africa.
“When we started working on the case, there were only a few court judgments on class actions and we had to make decisions about which route to take in the conduct of the litigation, without the guidance of precedent and established practice,” she says. Back then, it was not yet clear whether class actions were available to people suffering purely personal injuries, when there is no breach of a constitutional right.
The case at hand spans 50 years, involving 30 defendant gold mining companies and tens of thousands of mineworkers across Southern Africa suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis that developed from working in gold mines. Her hope is that the outcome of the litigation will mean improved compensation payable to mineworkers afflicted with occupational lung diseases, as well as improved working conditions in all South African mines.
Originally choosing law as a career because it looked glamorous, and without an inkling of what human rights law entailed, Georgina’s focus changed when her father was killed while she was completing her LLB.
“I realised that I am profoundly more fortunate than most South Africans, and that knowledge of the law is a powerful tool,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to use my skills and knowledge to advise, assist and empower people who have little, if any, access to justice.”
Georgina was shocked when, in one of her first lectures, the professor explained that the law “is not about justice”. Her realisation that legal representation is only available to those who can afford it also played a role in her choice of speciality.
In her spare time, Georgina keeps fit with trail running and mountain biking, and she loves to cook. — Kerry Haggard