Distinguished guests and friends,
I am indeed honoured to be part of this special occasion as we launch Nadel’s Student Chapter and - speaking as a former University of Natal alumnus - all the more so that we are here at UKZN.
It is particularly fitting that this launch is at Howard College.
As you know, Howard College and the School of Law have always been known for the activism of its staff and students against the apartheid state.
It has also been at the forefront of championing access to justice for all in our country.
It is, in itself, a beacon of social responsibility and the attainment of social justice.
In 1973 the School of Law hosted the first Legal Aid Conference ever held in South Africa. In the same year, Professor David McQuoid-Mason founded the School of Law‘s Legal Aid Clinic to provide legal services for the disenfranchised poor. In 1978 the School of Law became the first in the country to give academic credit for Legal Aid as a clinical law course.
During the 1980s the School of Law‘s anti-apartheid activities continued with the apartheid justice system being increasingly subjected to scrutiny and criticism by members of the School of Law staff in their lectures, public utterances and publications.
A special course on Race and the Law was introduced to expose students to the realities of social justice in the apartheid state.
The Centre for Socio-Legal Studies was established to house the Street Law programme and to provide legal education for trade unions, and the Community Law Centre (now the Community Law and Rural Development Centre) to provide paralegal services and Street Law training for rural communities.
In the late 1980s, as Dean, Prof McQuoid-Mason established a 24 hour Legal Reaction Unit - the only one in the country - to protect students and academic staff at the University of Natal and to counter the activities of the apartheid state’s Riot Unit which harassed, assaulted and intimidated anti-apartheid activists.
We may well have left behind those very dark and traumatic days of the late 80s and early 90s as we are now living in a constitutional democracy, founded on human dignity, freedom and equality, but that does not mean that our commitment to social justice and social responsibility has diminished.
Indeed the challenges currently facing not only our country and continent, but the world - such as increasing inequality and poverty - require the same commitment to social responsibility and activism as it has in the past. We know that at the heart of any discussion about human rights and access to justice is the realisation that access to constitutional rights is not enjoyed equally by all.
Very few people can afford the fees of private legal practitioners or they live in rural or deep rural areas where law firms or other bodies offering legal services are either not present or easily accessible. This results in a very real lack of access to justice for vulnerable and marginalised people.
In an article by Prof Lesley Greenbaum called “Access to justice for all: a reality or unfulfilled expectations?” which appeared in De Jure, first year law students at a law faculty were required to report on their observations in the lower courts and on an interview with a litigant or official at the court visited.
One of the students began with the following quote and said - "it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent".
Another one said, and I quote -
“Walking into the Wynberg magistrates' courts the feeling of inequality surrounds you. From the petty criminal charged with stealing toiletries to a wealthy businessman being involved in a civil suit, one gets the sense that justice will be served to those who can pay and not to those who are innocent.”
There is no doubt that very few people in our country have the funds to litigate or approach a court when their rights are infringed or when they want to take legal action.
And whilst Legal Aid SA does a sterling job in providing legal assistance to those who qualify for it – based on a means test and other criteria – the demand for free and/or affordable legal assistance in South Africa far outweighs the supply.
This is where we rely on paralegals, law clinics and community advice offices to fill the “access to justice gap” by delivering a wide-range of cost-effective social justice and legal services.
Professor McQuoid-Mason, writing about law clinics at African universities, says that the provision of legal services and access to justice - while at the same time teaching law students’ practical skills - has been the driving force for the establishment of university law clinics in most African countries.
He also argues that universities in Africa are, and I quote, “often surrounded by a sea of poverty and cannot afford the luxury of running purely simulated clinical legal education programmes as is sometimes done in the developed world.”
University law clinics are an essential part of making access to justice a reality in our country.
The Legal Practice Act recognizes law clinics and regulates them, to some extent, by way of section 34(8).
I want to commend law clinics on the services they are rendering and for their significant contribution to social justice.
Many of you will know that "community service" has been mentioned in the Legal Practice Act to refer to certain types of legal practice activities that will be regulated by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, in consultation with the Legal Practice Council, to apply to candidate attorneys and to practitioners.
Poverty, unemployment and inequality remain an existential threat to the rule of law in our country.
This is the value of bodies such as student chapters – they are able to fulfil a vital role when it comes to social responsibility and social justice.
We all know that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. There are not enough lawyers to fully service the people of South Africa.
However, many admitted advocates and attorneys battle to survive economically because they don’t have enough clients who can afford to pay them.
When doing your LLB you will be taught legal rules and principles, but is enough being done to teach students about social responsibilities - the role that they should play as legal practitioners in using the law to protect the vulnerable and advance the marginalised in our society?
You need a forum for discussing issues and debates on social justice and programmes for engaging with people outside of the university. You need to ensure that as many students in the faculty or department are encouraged to, at the very least, develop a social conscience.
In short, the student activists of today are the transformed and progressive legal profession of tomorrow.
I think for all of us working in the area of the provision of justice services, one of the main challenges we continue to face is how to make people aware of their rights and also that they know where to go when these rights are infringed.
This is an area where student chapters are critical, whether it be in Law Clinics, volunteering or working as interns at a NGO or mentoring learners in schools who participate in the National Schools Moot Court Competition.
The importance of the youth is highlighted in the fact that next Friday, 12 August, is International Youth Day. The United Nations has stated that in order for the world to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the world needs to leverage the full potential of all generations.
Many of you are about to enter the legal profession.
The legal profession is fundamental to the right of access to justice.
Some of you may have seen the matter surrounding the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) in the media this week.
SERI is a non-profit human rights organisation which has been involved in litigation, over many years, to protect the rights of informal traders in Johannesburg. In 2013 they won a Constitutional Court case against the City of Johannesburg allowing informal traders to trade and the City was not to interfere with the traders’ rights.
However, earlier this month, informal traders were met by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police and informed that the Member of the Mayoral Committee for Economic Development (the MMC), had given an order for the prohibition of their trade.
The traders then brought an urgent application in the Johannesburg High Court for their restoration and to hold the City and its office bearers in contempt of the Constitutional Court order.
Seri had acted for the South African Informal Traders Forum (SAITF) and they were successful in their High Court application. The Court ordered the City to reverse the illegal eviction of information traders from the trading precinct.
The MMC then posted his response social media, with xenophobic elements in our communities then targeting the SERI staff.
SERI claimed that the tweets have incited threats of violence against Seri including, amongst others, the burning down of Seri’s offices, killing the lawyers who represented the informal traders and harming other Seri staff. As a result Seri has had to temporarily close its offices.
The MMC’s actions were a blatant violation of a court order.
Furthermore, one does not attack the legal representatives of the other party, if you’ve lost against them in court.
It is important to stress that the right to legal representation is fundamental. Every person has the right to have their case heard before a court of law.
Legal practitioners represent their clients and the rights of their clients. They cannot and should not ever be harassed and intimated for doing their jobs.
Even if one vehemently disagrees with someone, their right to legal representation is fundamental. It is one of the foundations of the rule of law.
Lawyers sometimes do get a bad rap – a study found that nearly two-thirds of all lawyers in movies are cast as the proverbial “baddies” and sometimes the real life ones are. There are endless jokes about how bad lawyers are – for example a lawyer, a doctor and an accountant went swimming in the sea. A huge shark swam up to them and ate the doctor and accountant and then extended professional courtesy to the lawyer. Does anyone know of any jokes which portray lawyers positively?
I remember when I started in practice and people were still put in prison for not paying their debts – there was a couple who had divorced. One of the children needed medical treatment which the father was responsible for payment. He, however, didn’t pay and a Pietermaritzburg attorney had the mother arrested for failing to pay the debt.
Closer to home, some of you may have heard about the Bobroffs, a father and son who were both layers. Ronald Bobroff was, ironically, a former President of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces. They fled the country after facing allegations of stealing money due to their clients from the Road Accident Fund.
Luckily, unscrupulous lawyers make up a small fraction of the profession.
And it makes it vital that should guard our professionalism and our ethics as lawyers at all time.
In conclusion, Programme Director,
I want to congratulate NADEL and its new Student Chapter.
NADEL has always played an instrumental role in advancing Black and female legal practitioners and creating a legal profession that represents the demographics of our country as espoused in our Constitution.
We need to ensure that we build a legal profession that is committed to social justice.
The legal profession is undoubtedly a profession which has an enormous capability to do good in the world, to right the wrongs, to defend the defenceless, to give a voice to victims.