Johannesburg High Court. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/VATHISWA RUSELO
Johannesburg High Court. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/VATHISWA RUSELO

Justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola has moved to avoid debilitating industrial action that could have resulted in a total shutdown of all Legal Aid SA offices in the country.

This was after disgruntled attorneys of the state-owned law firm, constitutionally mandated to provide the destitute with legal assistance, handed over a list of their demands to Lamola’s office in Pretoria on Tuesday.

Lamola’s intervention has effectively thrown a spanner in the works of planned nationwide protests that would have prevented the poor from accessing free legal services. Industrial action by the attorneys would have also affected the functioning of the country’s judiciary system, by among other things, putting  further strain on the backlog of cases on the court roll.

In May, the employees protested outside the Legal Aid SA headquarters in Johannesburg against their group life cover policy, and what they claimed were horrible working conditions and alleged abuse from senior executives.

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

The employees were also unhappy about the process followed to appoint outgoing 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 had stopped.

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

On Wednesday, Vhambedzani Muregu, a worker representative at Legal Aid SA, told Business Day that their grievances had not been addressed by the management, hence they elected to approach Lamola to intervene.

“The minister’s office said they are aware of our demands and that some of them can be quickly resolved. They said the minister is intervening and attending to the issues raised,” said Muregu. “We then decided to suspend the total shutdown of the Legal Aid SA offices to give the minister a chance to intervene.”

Lamola’s spokesperson Chrispin Phiri told Business Day that they had received the workers’ list of grievances and that the Legal Aid SA board was “on top of the matter”.

“We have been reassured that the matter will be finalised expeditiously. We are looking forward to receiving feedback from Legal Aid SA board,” Phiri said.

“As things stand, we understand that this is an employer-employee matter, which we believe must be resolved quite quickly. Legal Aid provides legal services to destitute people. This is an important matter to us that we are monitoring.”

Legal Aid SA spokesperson Godfrey Matsobe could not immediately be reached for comment.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za