Soobramoney v Minister of Health, KwaZulu-Natal

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Soobramoney v Minister of Health, KwaZulu-Natal
Constitutional court of South Africa.jpeg
Court Constitutional Court of South Africa
Full case name Thiagraj Soobramoney v Minister of Health, KwaZulu-Natal
Decided 27 November 1997 (1997-11-27)
Citation(s) [1997] ZACC 17, 1998 (1) SA 765 (CC), 1997 (12) BCLR 1696 (CC)
Case history
Appealed from Durban and Coast Local Division
Court membership
Judges sitting Chaskalson P, Langa DP, Ackermann, Didcott, Goldstone, Kriegler, Madala, Mokgoro, O'Regan & Sachs JJ
Case opinions
Decision by Chaskalson

Soobramoney v Minister of Health, KwaZulu-Natal is an important judgement of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, delivered in 1997, and the first in which the court had to adjudicate on the universal constitutional right to medical treatment as against the problem of an under-resourced health care system.

Thiagraj Soobramoney was terminally ill, suffering from ischaemic heart disease and cerebro-vascular disease, and of limited means. His kidneys had failed in 1996, and his condition had been diagnosed as irreversible. To survive even for a while, he required renal dialysis. After exhausting his funds on private providers, he sought the treatment free from the dialysis program of the Addington Hospital, a state-funded institution in Durban, which rejected him on the grounds that his condition did not fulfil the requirements for eligibility: that he be curable within a short period of time, and that, as for his renal failure, he be eligible for a kidney transplant.[1] (Addington, like many other South African hospitals, had a severe shortage of resources.) Soobramoney brought an application to the Durban High Court for an order that Addington give him the needful treatment, citing a provision in the Constitution of South Africa which gives everyone the right not to be "refused emergency medical treatment,"[2] and insisting also on his constitutionally-protected right to life.[3]

The High Court dismissed his application, and he appealed to the Constitutional Court, which found Addington's standards to be reasonable and in his case fairly applied, and unanimously dismissed his appeal on the grounds that his non-treatment did not constitute a violation of his rights. While the court confirmed the state's constitutional duty to provide care, it found that, were Soobramoney to be given the full benefit of this, everyone else in his position would have to benefit as well; and that the state's limited resources could not accommodate such a burden. Biweekly renal dialysis, needed by Soobramoney to stay alive, would cost some R60,000 a year. To expand the programme to everyone who needed it would have a severe impact on the health budget, and would impinge on the state's other obligations.

The court held, therefore, that the right to emergency medical treatment had only limited meaning: One who suffers a sudden catastrophe, which calls for immediate medical attention, should not be denied the available emergency services, and should not be turned away from a hospital equipped to administer the necessary treatment. The court ruled that Soobramoney's situation, an "ongoing state of affairs," was not as such an "emergency." His case fell instead under sections 27(1) and (2) of the Constitution, which deal with the allocation of non-emergency medical treatment, and which are qualified by the availability of resources. Because Addington's resources were limited, its policy was to admit only those patients who could be cured quickly, and those with chronic renal failure who are eligible for a kidney transplant. The court ruled that it could not interfere with the good-faith decisions of political organs and medical authorities as to the allocation of budgets and priorities.

Nor could the right be taken to mean that the treatment of terminal illnesses had to be prioritised over other forms of medical care such as preventative health care. The court held further that the right to emergency medical treatment was independent of and not therefore inferable from the right to life, as section 27 of the Constitution deals specifically with health rights. These were to be interpreted in the context of the availability of health services generally, with the implication that there was room to challenge executive policies if they were unreasonable or applied unfairly.

Concerns arose after this ruling that the court had frustrated the prospects of the poor and the socially-disadvantaged. Its decision in Government v Grootboom, however, held the state to a much more rigorous standard for "reasonableness," requiring that it give consideration to the needs of the most disadvantaged in the fulfilment of its constitutional obligations.


  1. ^ This latter condition he was unable to meet because of his heart condition.
  2. ^ s 27(3).
  3. ^ s 11.