IN MEMORIAM – A tribute to the late Honourable Judge Ralph Zulman

(Contributed by former Judge (Ret.) Percy Blieden)

The late Ralph Zulman was one of those larger than life individuals who has left an indelible mark on the Johannesburg Bar and on the South African legal profession as a whole.

I first met Ralph when I joined the Johannesburg Bar at the end of 1969.  He had by this time been a member for a number of years and had built up a very large motion court practice.

In those days the unopposed motion court was held on Tuesdays.  Ralph would be there with about 20 to 30 briefs.  His razor-sharp intellect and obsession for work ensured that he was able to deal competently with each matter entrusted to him.  It did not matter how difficult the Judge; Ralph had an answer that was at least persuasive.

In the course of his years both at the Bar and also on the Bench, Ralph built a reputation of being a solid lawyer who was to be taken seriously and whose integrity was beyond question.

He also built a reputation for being something of an eccentric.  This was largely because of his inability to spend money.  Whenever he was taken to task for this, he did not hesitate to admit this fault, but said it was an illness for which “thank goodness” there was no cure.

As evidence of Ralph’s legendary parsimony was the vehicle he drove.  Counsel of his experience and earning capacity normally drove Jaguars, Porsches, and even a Ferrari or two.  One had merely to walk through the parking garage at Innes Chambers to see this.  Ralph drove a 1950 model Datsun 1600 desperately in need of a paint job.  Some of Ralph’s colleagues complained that he lowered the tone of the garage with his car, which most self-respecting used car dealers would be ashamed to have on their floors.  This did not faze Ralph in the least.

As a junior to Ralph after he had taken Silk, I experienced another of his eccentricities.  It was his use of language.  In this he was highly original.  A few examples will demonstrate this.

At a consultation in his chambers, which was attended by most of the senior directors of one of this country’s major banks in litigation that was highly complex, the following occurred:

‘Ralph:  The conduct of our opponents is like Mrs T……’s[1]  left leg.
Chairman of Bank:  What do you mean by that?Ralph:  It is neither fair nor right.

This kind of approach was not only reserved for consultations.  As Ralph’s junior in an appeal before the Full Bench of the Appellate Division (now Supreme Court of Appeal) I witnessed the following:

‘AD Judge:  Mr Zulman, why was it necessary to rely on three separate grounds of appeal when your first ground clearly disposes of the issue?
Ralph:  On the ‘chicken soup’ principle, M’Lord.
AD Judge (rather irritably):  What is that principle?  I have not heard of it.
Ralph:  Can’t do any harm.

I will not say anything further about this incident save that we succeeded in the appeal, despite Ralph’s answer not evoking a smile.

A final example of Ralph’s use of language in Court is his referral to a witness’s failure to give evidence under oath as ‘being due to an allergy to giving evidence often found amongst most liars’.

Over the years the legal profession has produced real characters, some of whom have become the subjects of legend.  Ralph Zulman was such a character.

[1] Full name omitted by the editor.