Public trust theory derives from the sovereign’s duty to act as the guardian of certain interests for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In the United States it serves as the basis for citizen suits to vindicate environmental rights, and it has been incorporated into the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which provides in article 21 that the wealth derived from a nation’s resources is for “the exclusive interest of the people . . . [and in] no case shall a people be deprived of it.” Could it be used by civil society to combat grand corruption in the allocation of land and natural resources?
That is the question Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, addresses in a new paper prepared for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s project examining how civil society can help spark more anticorruption enforcement actions. After carefully parsing South African law governing civil suits for damages, Professor van der Schyff concludes that “public-trust theory has a supportive role to play” in helping South Africans recover damages for injuries sustained when corruption infects the distribution or use of the nation’s natural resources. Her thoughtful analysis shows how citizens of other states can use the principles that underlie the public trust doctrine to bring damage actions too.
Professor van der Schyff’s paper is the sixth in a series commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative on civil society and anticorruption litigation. It follows earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, and v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer.