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Remarks by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP at a Farewell Function for the Board Chairperson and Board Members of Legal Aid SA, held at the Houghton Golf Club, 22 February 2019

Programme Director,
Chairperson and Members of the Board of Legal Aid SA,
The CEO, Ms Vedalankar,
Ladies and gentlemen

We often talk about access to justice.

We often talk about making legal services affordable and accessible.

And when we do, I’m always mindful of the words of Sir James Mathew. Sir James was an Irish judge in the late Victorian period, who is said to have remarked that –

“In England, justice is open to all, like the Ritz Hotel”.

In other words, only open to those who have money – only open to the privileged.

Today it’s more than a century after the Victorian period and we’re not in England – but, sadly, the sentiment is the same, in the present day and across the globe.

Many of you will be familiar with the UK’s legal aid cuts, where spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1bn in five years.

In July last year, the Independent wrote that cuts to legal aid have made the enforcement of human rights “simply unaffordable” for many people in the UK. A few months later, the Guardian reported that cuts to legal aid inflicted such disarray in family courts that parents are abandoning efforts to maintain contact with their children.

In British Columbia, in Canada, they have increased funding to the justice sector, but the Canadian Bar Association said that while the additional funding was welcomed, it only covers a quarter of what is needed to provide services to families and others who cannot afford legal fees.

So, globally speaking, the Ritz Hotel problem remains.

Here in South Africa much of what we do, and have done since the dawn of democracy, has been to change this, to be able to say that everyone in our country has the right to access justice.

Some of the best examples include the passing of the Legal Practice Act and, of course, the work of Legal Aid SA.

In 2017/18 Legal Aid SA took on more than 426 000 new matters, it finalised over 420 000 and assisted with legal advice in over 305 000 matters. The figures are remarkable, as is the reach of Legal Aid SA, with its 64 local offices, 64 satellite offices, 6 provincial offices and 1 national office.

Against this sterling performance, lies the reality of fiscal constraints.

There is always that tension: on the one hand, there are fiscal constraints and austerity measures, on the other hand, our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the need to build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies which provide equal access to justice and are based on respect for human rights.

Goal 16, and its target 3 in particular, highlight the importance of ensuring “access to justice for all” in achieving sustainable development. That target then also has a direct impact on the progress of other goals.

Access to legal aid is central to ensuring access to justice, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable people.

As emphasized by the UN, legal aid is an essential aspect of a fair, humane, and efficient criminal justice system based on the rule of law.  Without access to legal aid, millions of people around the world are at risk of having their rights ignored or violated when they interact with a criminal justice system.

As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime succinctly says:

“Put simply, access to legal aid is fundamental to safeguarding fair, equal, and meaningful access to justice.”

As you know, Judge President Mlambo and the CEO have spearheaded a campaign to support the formulation of SDG 16.

In terms of implementation of the SDGs in South Africa, here is an opportunity for government to work together with role-players in the non-government sector, to build partnerships with relevant stakeholders to ensure that there is a commitment to a national programme which will see the implementation of the SDG 16 goals.

The UNDC and the UNODC undertook the Global Study on Legal Aid in 2016 to assess the state of legal aid around the world. Some of the findings tell us that -

  • Although many countries recognise the right to legal aid for criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, the availability and quality of legal aid provided in practice is limited.
  • The demand for legal aid for civil cases is largely unmet in most countries.
  • The need for increased access to legal aid services for civil and administrative cases, including family disputes and property matters, is particularly pronounced in Least Developed Countries.
  • There is limited availability of specialized and targeted legal aid provision for specific vulnerable populations, such as internationally displaced people and refugees, and
  • The State authority responsible for delivery of legal aid should consider ensuring diversity within the governing board of the legal aid authority, safeguarding independence in monitoring the performance of legal aid service delivery, and enhancing the quality of legal aid services, including by developing performance and qualification standards for all legal aid providers.

If we measure ourselves against these aspects, it is evident that we really are trailblazers in the provision of legal aid.

And that is something that we can all be extremely proud of.

We know that good governance starts at the top level of the leadership of an organisation – in this case, that is the Board.

The outgoing Board, under the leadership of Judge President Mlambo, has made a huge contribution to the success of Legal Aid SA.

They have played a crucial role of oversight of the success of Legal Aid SA’s performance to increase access to justice for indigent and vulnerable persons. And for this we sincerely thank them.

As you know, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services has appointed the new Board of Legal Aid SA for a 5-year term.  The term of the current Board comes to an end at the end of this month and the new Board comes into operation on 1 March 2019.

We wish Justice Makume, as the new Chairperson, and his team all the very best in building on the successes of Legal Aid SA.

I thank you.