Legal Aid South Africa presented its annual report, saying its major successes in the 2013/14 financial year were its ability to provide assistance to the poor and the vulnerable, especially women and children. It had managed to cover all the criminal courts in the country, and had received an unqualified report for the thirteenth consecutive year. The biggest challenge facing it were budgets cuts from the National Treasury, which would make it technically impossible to deliver to the community it intended to serve -- taking it back to where it was in the 1990s. The other challenges were unfunded mandates such as the Marikana inquiry, which had so far cost R25 million.
Members commended Legal Aid SA for the clean audit and the work it was doing, especially its legal assistance to women, children and the poor. Questions were raised on the perception that its practitioners were said to be unprepared for court cases. It was asked about the number of cases it had represented against the state, the success rate on cases it represented in court, and the posting of people who were fluent in Venda to work in KwaZulu-Natal, creating a language barrier with the clients.
Legal Aid SA replied that it always appreciated the support it received from the Committee. The perception of unpreparedness was not reflective of the organisational performance, as there were quality assurance mechanisms in-house. It gave seven days to its employees to be prepared for court cases. In cases where clients pleaded guilty, approval was sought from the supervisor. It would examine cases in which men could not afford to pay maintenance, but could afford to pay lawyers. The number of cases against the state would be responded to in writing. It would continue to interact with other advocacy groups to demonstrate the mandate of serving the poor. It would also continue to interact with all law students before they completed their studies, to make Legal Aid SA the employer of first choice.
Legal Aid South Africa Annual Report 2013/14
Legal Aid SA said the 2013/14 financial year began with caution, as concerns about the prevailing economic climate impacted on its work through budgetary constraints, and increased the demand for legal aid as potential clients faced economic hardships while their socio-economic position worsened. Nevertheless, it had managed to deliver on the programmes within its budget and had delivered on its mandate by increasing access to justice. Overall, it remained sustainable and was in a position to continue to deliver on its mandate in the next financial year.
The major highlights were that;
- Legal Aid SA assisted the poor and vulnerable in 776 301 litigation and advice matters;
- It provided legal assistance in criminal and civil matters, as well as legal advice;
- Coverage of all criminal courts in the country continued, ensuring that no person went unrepresented in a criminal matter because of his/her socio economic position;
- Legal training programmes and training ensured a continued focus on improving the quality of services, with major emphasis on providing quality legal assistance to clients;
- Its model of legal aid delivery was effective and had become a model for many countries internationally;
- It had received an unqualified audit for the 13th consecutive year;
- 92.2% of the R1.468 billion budget had been spent by the end of March 2014;
- Law students across South Africa voted it the second preferred employer of choice;
- From April to September 2014, Legal Aid assisted 387 672 poor and vulnerable person in criminal, civil cases, and offered advice;
- It branded 300 holding cells, 800 police cells and 700 holding cells as part of its marketing and advertising
- All viruses had been blocked before causing any harm to its system.
However, Legal Aid SA had the following challenges:
- The number of practitioners per court was fewer, impacting on case loads and relief capacity, which indirectly impacted on the quality of legal service offered;
- There was a small number of legal practitioners who could not meet the quality targets, who were provided with additional support and development;
- Pending legal matters were at justice centres -- 183 784, of which 18% were backlog matters exceeding the turn around time for trial matters;
- There were unfunded mandates linked to Commissions of inquiry. For example, the Marikana inquiry’s estimated cost had been R17 million, but it had risen to R25 million, for which the government had not offered any assistance;
- The National Treasury had advised of a R62 million budget cut in 2015/16, and R93 million for 2016/17. The cuts would make it hard for Legal Aid to serve the community it intended to serve;
- The IT system was sometimes slow and unstable.
Ms M Mothapo (ANC) wished all departments and entities that reported to the Committee had been present to listen to the presentation from Legal Aid, so that they could emulate Legal Aid’s clean audit and accolades. She was happy that the Chief Executive Officer and the financial officer were women. There was a perception that Legal Aid lawyers were not ready for court cases. She asked if it had transformed its culture statement, which says “Proudly South African….champion of legal rights, serving our clients with integrity and confidence. Your Voice. For Justice”, into all official languages.
Mr B Bongo (ANC) said he was present when the Legal Aid bill was deliberated, and felt that it was important to just adjourn the meeting after Legal Aid SA finished its presentation. Everyone appearing before the Committee was complaining of funding and Treasury budget cuts. Funding had not only become a problem for government entities, but even for civil society. Legal Aid must to try to live within the available budgets. He urged it to become the number one preferred employer of choice, not just the second. He was concerned that people who spoke Venda were posted to work in KwaZulu-Natal. Personally, he was impressed by the presentation from Legal Aid and he would encourage the people of South Africa to trust it.
Mr W Horn (DA) congratulated the clean audit outcome. It was not proper to just chase a clean audit when entities struggled to pay their creditors, as the Treasury wanted to cut the budget to Legal Aid because it had certain money in its reserves. The Committee must strongly recommend to Treasury not to cut the budget for Legal Aid. The justice centres were so under-resourced that the lawyers had to type their own proceedings. He asked how much of the R35 million in trust accounts was held in a suspense account. There was a perception that some attorneys from Legal Aid were unprepared for court cases. He asked if the breakdown of 97% finalisation rate involved matters struck off the roll and matters pleaded guilty.
The Chairperson commended the assistance mainly in civil matters, to minors, women and the poor. She asked the names of the agencies with which Legal Aid had agreements, and in which provinces. How many cases had it represented against the state? She asked if Legal Aid’s justice centres and the advice centres of the Department of Justice could be combined to avoid working in silos, taking into account the limited resources in South Africa. It was always good to listen to Legal Aid.
Justice Dunstan Mhlambo, Chairperson, Legal Aid SA, thanked the Committee for the kind remarks. The perception of the unpreparedness of Legal Aid was not reflective of the organisational performance, as there was quality assurance in-house. People who called the radio saying that they had met their lawyers for the first time in court, had given it a bad name. It would share with the Committee the number of cases struck off the roll and the ones pleaded guilty. The National Prosecuting Authority was now complaining that Legal Aids’ clients were no longer pleading guilty. Clients were not compelled to plead guilty.
Mr Jan Maree, Board Member, Legal Aid SA, said the quality assurance report would be made available to the Committee.
Mr Brian Nair, National Operations Executive, Legal Aid SA, said attorneys were given seven to days to thoroughly prepare for their cases. The finalisation rates would be made available to the Committee, but withdrawals constituted 70%. For the 30% that went to trial, they had an acquittal rate of 25%. Half of the matters were guilty pleas. In research carried out on a sample of 100 cases on whether pleading guilty was reasonable, it had been found that only 2% should not have pleaded guilty. The attorneys seek approval from supervisors on when to plead guilty.
Mr Jerry Makokoane, Chief Operations Officer, Legal Aid SA, said the culture statements had been used as a marketing tool to reach out to citizens. About 204 radio spots had been aired through all African languages on stations of SABC. It continued to interact with other advocacy groups to demonstrate the mandate of serving the poor. It would also continue to interact with all law students before they completed their studies, to make Legal Aid SA the employer of choice. A survey conducted by Universum for law students to choose their preferred employer had voted it the second best employer, which meant that it promoted what it stands for.
Mr Patrick Hundermark, Chief Legal Executive, Legal Aid SA, said it had a set agreement with banks to track if money got its intended beneficiaries. In cases against the state, there were certain issues it could represent, but where it went beyond its policy, the client was advised to seek private legal counsel. He did not want to comment on the Commissions Act, as it was currently under review.
Ms Vidhu Vedalankar, Chief Executive Officer, Legal Aid SA, said its salaries to employees were bound by those paid by government. The language choice was part of the client focus programme, that clients must be assisted by the language of their choice. She agreed that SA was in recession, and it had always implemented cost containment measures. There was no way it could eat into its reserves. It had written a very long letter to National Treasury motivating why this was the case. It was always trying to find ways of reaching new clients within the available budget. It was always assisting clients in civil, trial and pre-trial readiness. In the past two quarters, it had handled over 300 000 matters, indicating that it was always reaching and responding to many people.
Justice Mlambo said he was always humbled by the support of the Committee. Legal Aid would not be able to provide assistance to all magistrate courts to be opened. The new courts would not be able to function in the absence of legal aid practitioners. It had always recommended government that when instituting a commission of inquiry, a budget should be made available should there be a need for legal assistance. In civil matters, women were the major beneficiary, while men were beneficiaries in criminal matters. Matters against the state would be responded to later. South Africa had many interpreters in courts, and an audit of their qualifications was currently under way.
The Chairperson said there were about 45 000 remand detainees contributing to the overcrowding of prisons. In addition, a lot of women had been complaining about men saying they could not afford to pay maintenance, but could afford lawyers to represent them to avoid paying maintenance.
Justice Mlambo said the reporting of cases awaiting trial was part of the provincial enhancement strategy, where the Department of Correctional Services reported monthly on cases awaiting trial. There were some cases that had been awaiting trial for over five years. There were some regional magistrates employed on contract as they could not leave their work before finalising the cases they were presiding over.
Mr Hundermark said its practitioners needed to examine how much money was being paid to lawyers, and how much was not being afforded for payment as maintenance.
The meeting was adjourned.
- PC Justice: Legal Aid South Africa on its 2013/14 annual report, and 1 April to 30 September 2014 performance 2
- PC Justice: Legal Aid South Africa on its 2013/14 annual report, and 1 April to 30 September 2014 performance 1
- PC Justice: Legal Aid South Africa on its 2013/14 Annual Report
- PC Justice: Legal Aid South Africa on its 2013/14 Annual Report 1