Disgruntled Legal Aid SA attorneys, constitutionally mandated to provide the poor with legal assistance, have said their planned protest action in Johannesburg on Wednesday would not affect cases on the court roll, for now.

The lawyers are unhappy about their group life cover policy, what they claim are horrible working conditions and alleged abuse from the state-owned law firm’s senior executive, among other grievances.

Other points pertain to the process being followed to appoint CEO Vidhu Vedalankar’s successor and the payment of subscription fees of about R2,500 per person per year to the Legal Practice Council, which the company has stopped.

Speaking on behalf of his more than 200 colleagues, attorney Michael Motaung said their planned picket from 8.30am to 9.30am would not affect cases before the courts.

He said the law firm unilaterally replaced the lawyers’ group life cover policy, which initially paid almost R2m to beneficiaries upon a member’s death, with one that paid R250,000 to the family of the deceased employee.

“We were told this was due to financial constraints but they actually went overboard with that one — you can’t mess with that scheme because we have been members for more than 10 years,” said Motaung.

He said the job requirements for Vedalankar’s replacement were allegedly crafted to benefit an internal staff member who had no practical legal experience. “This person was recently admitted as an advocate and he has no practical legal experience. The requirements for the position should be revised to include 10 years’ proven practical legal experience. This is what we want, that’s one of our demands.” 

Another grievance is the lack of security personnel at the Legal Aid SA headquarters in Braamfontein, which has resulted in attorneys being verbally abused by clients.

“We are also complaining of intimidation by executives who victimise their subordinates,” said Motaung.

He said they do not rule out embarking on a “full-blown strike” if their grievances are not addressed by the company. If they embarked on a national strike, it would be the poor who would be most affected, Motaung said.

“We are shortstaffed … and the workload is way too much to bear. That is why we want to go to court and represent our clients after the picket. We don’t want them to be stranded the whole day.”

Legal Aid SA’s COO, Jerry Makokoane, said the firm is aware of the group’s intention to embark on a peaceful demonstration on Wednesday, which would culminate in the handing over of a memorandum to Vedalankar. 

“We wish to assure our stakeholders, clients and members of the public that the delivery of legal aid services at court and our respective offices will continue without disruption,” said Makokoane.

He said Legal Aid SA has had to face budget cuts in recent financial years, which have affected the organisation’s financial sustainability.

He said the organisation followed due labour law consultation processes in reducing benefits due to financial constraints. “We are confident that the issues raised will be resolved with our employees as we remain committed to a viable employment partnership.”