Wayne Deck: an exemplary civil servant

Cape High Court clerk’s legendary work ethic should inspire others

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Wayne Deck, clerk at the Cape High Court, at work. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

At the Western Cape High Court, you sometimes meet civil servants who are astonishingly efficient. One of them stands out as an example to all.

Young lawyers and candidate attorneys in Cape Town gain their High Court experience in a place called Room 1 – a large ground floor room on the Queen Victoria Street side of the court building. It is where all case numbers are allocated, and it is the filing room of the court. This is the bustling administrative heart of the court. It was here that I first met Wayne Deck.

It was 1987 and I was wet behind the ears. My prior law experience at the time was five years at university and a conscripted stint in the army as a law officer.

Wayne, who is about two years younger than me, started his career as a young Registrar’s clerk at the court about six months earlier.

The Cape High Court has divisions. Third Division – in other High Courts known as motion court – is where all motion proceedings (and unopposed divorces) are heard. It is a busy court where about 60 cases are heard per day from Monday to Thursday.

I had progressed about six months into my career. Not yet admitted and with more confidence than justified, late one morning I received a telephone call from Wayne Deck.

“I am going through the motion court files before sending them up to the judge,” he said. “I see you have not filed the Master’s certificate.”

Panicking, I told Wayne I had in fact received it and had it in my file. It was my oversight.

“I will hold the files back for 30 minutes if you can get it to me,” Wayne responded.

I ran the two blocks to court and the day was saved.

Two things struck me about the experience. First, Wayne went beyond his duty to check every court file in such detail before sending it up to the judge. Second, was his willingness to help a young and arrogant articled clerk to avoid being embarrassed in court. We were not friends; we hardly knew each other. He had no obligation to do it; he just wanted to help.

Several years later, one evening, I was halfway through a dinner with friends on the Thursday evening before Easter weekend, when I received a telephone call from the late Steve Wrottesley, an assistant editor at a Cape newspaper. He informed me that one of their journalists had been arrested for doing his job and was being held at the Goodwood police station. My dinner ended abruptly.

Cops dislike lawyers even more than they dislike journalists. I soon realised that I would not succeed in smooth-talking my client into police bail, and that he faced the prospect of spending the entire Easter weekend in a dirty cell. An urgent application was needed.

For an urgent after-hours application of that nature, you need to alert the duty judge and the duty registrar. Judge Foxcroft was on duty and took note of the case I would later bring to him. But the duty registrar must issue the notice of motion. He oozed unwillingness when I spoke to him.

Back to the judge. “Call Wayne,” he said.

It was already after midnight and Wayne was in Worcester. But he immediately, unreservedly, agreed to meet us at court as soon as he could drive the 115 km to Cape Town.

At about 2am on Easter Friday morning, Wayne unlocked the back door of the High Court and issued the papers my advocate and I had prepared in the meantime. The three of us then speeded through to Marina da Gama, where Judge Foxcroft, in his nightgown, granted an order at about 3:30am.

We hurried back to court for Wayne to issue the order. I learnt on the way back that Wayne would not get any overtime payment. He was also not interested in any of the gifts that I offered. Wayne did it for the love of the job. The journalist could spend the weekend with his family.

Both Wayne and I are now at the backend of our careers. I only occasionally see him. In the streets close to the High Court, we greet each other at a distance. My registrar-related work is now performed by the junior practitioners and candidate attorneys in my firm. It is their turn to learn from people like Wayne.

About the juniors, Wayne said in a 2012 interview with The Bar Brief that he loves to do his “’articles’ every year with the new article clerks, each one of them very unique, with their own ideas, problems and successes, and I share in all their joys and sorrows.”

My candidate attorneys love Wayne. He is still their teacher and is never condescending. He shares their joys and sorrows, their exam results, and eventual admission. He is also their go-to man if they want to know how the court works.

Wayne said in the 2012 interview: “I do not have a ‘favourite’ or a ‘worst’ part of my job – I simply love every minute thereof! Every morning I wake up at 3:30 to attend the office at 5:15, non-stop until 15:30, when I get ready to leave for home.”

If a fraction of our civil servants could have Wayne Deck’s work ethic, integrity, respect for others and discipline, we would solve our country’s problems. I hope his example will inspire others. It has been and it is a privilege to know him.

The author is GroundUp’s attorney.

TOPICS:  Court

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