Picture: 123RF/3D RENDERINGS
Picture: 123RF/3D RENDERINGS

SA’s legal practitioners, especially those in small firms in rural areas with sparse access to justice , face financial collapse amid the strict coronavirus lockdown regulations, with more than half having lost significant income, according to a survey.

With criticism around the legality and constitutionality of the lockdown, and its effect on the economy, foreshadowing numerous court challenges, a recent survey found that 63% of 549 legal practitioners lost more than 60% of their income during April.

While the economy as a whole has come to a standstill, the functioning of the courts, which are critical for the functioning of a constitutional democracy, have been severely limited.

The survey, conducted on behalf of the Goldfields Circle of Attorneys, included attorneys, advocates and candidate attorneys about the effect the lockdown has had on their finances and ability to do their work.

In terms of salaries, 24.4% of law firms were unable to pay any staff salaries, while 40.3% could partially pay, and only 35.3% could pay full salaries of all employees. Civil cases were especially affected, the survey found.

Martus de Wet, co-chair of the Goldfields Circle of Attorneys, said not included in the survey is that the effect after the state of disaster was declared in March was almost immediate. “March was a bad month, April was catastrophic and we need to see what happens in May,” he said.

Also of concern is that 84.5% of the attorneys and advocates surveyed said that the lockdown regulations “severely” affected legal services to the public.

The Law Society of SA’s president Mvuzo Notyesi told Business Day there is a high possibility that many lawyers, especially those running small firms, will be closing their doors. He said lawyers have been effectively left out in the cold in terms of financial relief during the lockdown.

“The huge effect is on the small firms, in particular firms in rural areas, where access to justice is most needed,” Notyesi said.

He described the lockdown as it relates to the legal fraternity as “a mess”, raising concerns about the differences in the way courts are functioning across the country, with the lack of access to courts a big frustration for lawyers. He also raised concerns about the Road Accident Fund (RAF) not being classified as essential during the lockdown, as claims made to the RAF have a prescription period.

No consistency within court system

Craig Watt-Pringle, chair of the General Council of the Bar (GCB), said that while it is concerned for its members, the concern also extends to the public, which now has less access to the courts as a result of the lockdown.

In dealing with the effect on the advocates profession itself, he said it has hit them “very hard”.

He said there are people still fortunate enough to have work and can do it during the lockdown, but this is not the vast majority of members. He emphasised that the GCB has not done any census on the matter, and is thus anecdotal, but for the majority of members work has dried up or significantly decreased.   

Watt-Pringle said it is frustrating that there is no consistency under the different divisions of the courts, as some courts are more accommodating of the use of technology, while others take a more conservative approach to hearing cases.  

“The result is that a substantial number of practitioners are out of work and out of income.” he said. As well as the effect on the members the GCB represents, he said the lack of access to courts is “highly prejudicial” to the public.

When the issue of relief for lawyers was raised during a webinar with deputy minister of justice John Jeffery on Monday, Jeffery said it was something that the department has to put more energy into, adding, “I agree it is urgent.” 

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