Justice officials aim to transform legal profession
White senior counsels remain first choice in big cases, says Advocates for Transformation
The justice department wants to use the financial muscle of the state to help transform the legal profession.
The department was in the process of transforming the state’s legal services to ensure a fair, nondiscriminatory distribution of briefs, Justice Minister Michael Masutha said in Parliament on Thursday.
The way in which black attorneys and advocates — particularly black females — are marginalised when it comes to the assignment of briefs has concerned black professionals and the minister. Large corporates and the government have failed in this regard.
Dumisa Ntsebeza, who chairs Advocates for Transformation, raised the issue recently when he said there was not a single black advocate in the Constitutional Court in the case involving the social grants payment system.
"Nearly 23 years into our democracy, we still find ourselves in a situation where white senior counsels and even their junior counterparts are the first choice of corporate SA, NGOs [nongovernment organisations] and the government when it comes to representing them in big cases," Ntsebeza said in a radio interview.
He said it was disappointing that the government was not leading by example.
Well-established attorney firms continued to be dominated by white males.
According to Law Society of SA statistics for 2016, of the 24,330 attorneys in the country only 6,088 were black males and 3,604 black females.
Addressing the media ahead of his budget vote speech in the National Assembly, Masutha said the department had asked the Treasury to help establish a "framework contract" that would ensure the fair distribution of briefs to advocates and private law firms.
Masutha said that in 2016-17, the department had paid about R781m to counsel, 79% of whom were historically disadvantaged individuals and 26% female.
The minister said the sheriff’s profession was also becoming more representative.
At the end of February 2017, there were 268 sheriffs, of whom 189 were male and 79 were female, with the overall percentage of black sheriffs totalling 62%.
Masutha stressed that the government’s fight against crime and corruption remained a key priority. By the end of March, the Asset Forfeiture Unit had recovered R685m in respect of corruption cases involving R5m or more.
By end-December 2016, the Special Investigating Unit had recovered R126m.
The unit had begun a process to reactivate the special tribunal to expedite the finalisation of civil matters.