Fort Hare produced its first law graduate at a very early stage, when it was still preparing students for degrees of the University of South Africa. That graduate was Z.K. Matthews who later became a Professor and also Acting Principal of the then University College of Fort Hare. Prior to 1961, certain law subjects were taught in the Faculty of Arts. The Faculty of Law was established in 1961 and Prof. D. Pont, LLB (SA) LLD (Utrecht), formerly Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria and first editor of the “Journal of Contemporary Roman Dutch Law” was appointed as the first Dean.
The qualifications offered at the time were the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree, the Attorneys’ Admission Certificate and the Public Service Law Certificate. In addition, the Faculty supported the delivery of the BA Law degree in the Faculty of Arts. Initially the Faculty consisted of the three Departments of Private Law, Public Law and Mercantile Law. Later, two other Departments were added, viz. the Department of Constitutional and Public International Law and the Department of African and Comparative Law.
In 1994 the UNESCO/Oliver Tambo Chair of Human Rights was established. It provides human rights education and undertakes community engagement projects throughout the Eastern Cape Province. The surrounding communities are also served with free legal advice and representation by the Legal Aid Clinic funded jointly by the Attorneys Fidelity Fund and the University of Fort Hare. In 1997, the iconic alumnus of the faculty and South Africa’s first democratically elected national President Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela granted the University of Fort Hare the permission to rename the Law Faculty in his honour; hence in 2002 the faculty formally became known as the Nelson R Mandela School of Law.
Although the University of Fort Hare has three sites for various programme offerings, all full-time students registered for the LLB qualification study at the East London campus. Due to the phased migration from Alice to East London, the Law Faculty currently retains only a few staff members at the Alice campus to offer service courses in law to non-law major programmes in other faculties.