Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN
Ronald Lamola. Picture: SOWETAN

The office of the state attorney is in a “dire” situation, justice and correctional services minister Ronald Lamola said in Parliament on Wednesday.

The office, which only handles civil litigation on behalf of the state, has been plagued by poor performance, corruption and a decentralised, uncoordinated structure.

Lamola made introductory remarks before a briefing to the portfolio committee on justice and correctional services on the department's annual report for 2018/2019.

Lamola warned that “government civil litigation, if not handled well, can prove to be a major threat to a country's fiscal liability”.

“While we welcome the Special Investigating Unit's (SIU's) investigation into the division, we realise that we cannot rely on that investigation alone to turn [it] about.

“As a result, we are in the process of finalising a governance model that will ensure that a state litigation strategy is concluded [and] a clear counsel briefing policy is finalised. A tariff policy and mediation policy is receiving urgent attention. We are looking at presenting this to cabinet in due course,” Lamola said

In an interview on the sidelines of the committee meeting, deputy justice minister John Jeffery cited some of the problems affecting the state attorney's office.

“It is known that there has been a problem for some time with the performance of state attorneys. There was an attempt to fix it by passing an amendment providing for a solicitor-general to be head the state attorney's offices but that did not work out in terms of being able to find somebody suitable at the salary level.”

The previous minister of justice Michael Masutha asked the CEO of Legal Aid SA Vidhu Vedalankar to undertake an investigation and make a proposal on the restructuring of state legal services. This had been done and is now being looked at, Jeffery said. The aim of the restructuring would be for the state attorney's offices to provide a better service.

“It is no secret that a number of judges have complained about the performance of the state attorney's offices. It is not so much an issue of losing cases but issues of complying with the requirements relating to the service of documents, filing of affidavits, noting of appeals and so on — sometimes those are not done properly.”

Jeffery noted that there was also the issue of corruption and collusion, which the SIU had been looking into. In some cases — for example in the Eastern Cape — this involved the collusion between a state attorney and the attorney of the opposing party to settle disputes at amounts that were much too high or to settle disputes that should not have been settled at all.

In August 2018, former health minister Aaron Motsoaledi accused “cartels” of state attorneys of deliberately bungling cases and colluding with private lawyers through settlements on winnable cases.

The Sunday Times reported that these cases — deliberately lost cases as well as some winnable cases settled outside court — had cost the state about R80bn, with the department of health being the most affected.

The SIU was mandated to investigate allegations about collusion between members of the state attorney's office and other law firms, over the last year.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za

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