Advocates wait for silk status: Whenever you're ready, Mr Prez

2014-09-07 15:00

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About 50 advocates who have been approved by their Bar councils for the conferment of senior counsel have been waiting for almost a year for a signature from President Jacob Zuma to confirm their silk status.

A few advocates have been waiting for years to be granted senior counsel status, and several are black advocates who are keen to advance their careers.

The justice department confirmed on Friday that 50 junior advocates were awaiting Zuma’s signature in their applications for silk status.

Department spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga attributed the lengthy delay to a Constitutional Court case brought by Devi Mansingh, a practising attorney, who unsuccessfully challenged a section of the Constitution related to the president’s authority to grant silk status.

The matter was settled in November last year.

Silk status is conferred by the president on the recommendation of Bar councils. It is awarded to a select group of advocates as recognition for excellence in the profession and for their experience.

Senior advocates are highly respected in the profession and usually receive a better quality of cases.

They also generally charge higher rates?–?up to R65?000 a day?–?than junior advocates for consultations and appearances in court.

Some leading silks include Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux; as well as Ishmael Semenya, who represents the police at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa caused a commotion in his two days of testimony at the commission when he said Advocate Dali Mpofu?–?who is representing the injured and arrested miners?–?had asked him to put in a good word with Zuma to expedite Mpofu’s application for silk status.

Mpofu denied this.

But just 10 of the 50 recommended silks are black African, which is a sore point with Advocates for Transformation.

Craig Watt-Pringle, a deputy chairperson of the General Council of the Bar who also sat on the silk committee of the Johannesburg Bar Council, said the ball was now in Zuma’s court as the respective Bar councils had done their work and recommended suitable candidates.

“We continued every year to have a process and to nominate members at the Johannesburg Bar Council. Once that case was pending, the process was put on hold. The case was finally decided. This means the president is at liberty to sign, but hasn’t done so yet.”

Dumisa Ntsebeza, the chairperson of Advocates for Transformation, said the body was having difficulty convincing white colleagues on the Bar councils that there was an imbalance between white and black advocates who had been recommended for silk status.

He said white advocates would have to accept that a few black advocates who did not have the same number of cases?–?including Constitutional Court appearances?–?would have to be put ahead of white colleagues in recommendations for silk status.

“They must accept that for transformation to be meaningful, there must be a time when competent white members will not be considered if black members are not sufficient to bring balance to the equation,” he said.

Mhaga confirmed that the November judgment had also raised similar concerns. These were being addressed by the justice minister.

“To address concerns raised in the judgment, including the lack of appropriate criteria to confer such status and the inequitable manner in which these honours were processed in the past, it has become desirable that policy guidelines be developed.”

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj said: “The applications are not brought to the presidency directly.

“They are sent to the department of justice and constitutional development for processing. The department sends a recommendation to the president.

“The file will be attended to as soon as it reaches the president’s desk.”

Advocates in limbo as they wait for silk

Prominent member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Dali Mpofu and former pension funds adjudicator Vuyani Ngalwana are just a few of the prominent black advocates waiting for President Jacob Zuma to sign off on their silk status for almost a year.

Mpofu, the former group chief executive of the SABC, has been a controversial figure since butting heads with the ANC leadership.

He represented Julius Malema in his disciplinary case at Luthuli House.

When they lost, and Malema was expelled from the ANC, Mpofu left with him to form the EFF.

Mpofu has also taken over the case of another Zuma foe, abaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, who is challenging Zuma’s move to strip him of his title.

Ngalwana was a prominent pension funds adjudicator before going back to practising full time. He previously represented the police at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

He sparked controversy at the Johannesburg Bar Council in April last year after tweeting comments critical of other advocates at the commission, including struggle icon George Bizos, who is representing the Legal Resources Centre and the Bench Marks Foundation at the commission.

He later apologised to Bizos.

Ngalwana and Mpofu have refused to comment on their application for silk status this week.

But another advocate, who is also awaiting silk status confirmation and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he hoped the president’s delay had nothing to do with politics.

“It would be silly to punish 50 people and make them wait because you want to target one or two people. Once the profession has recognised you as a leader, it shouldn’t be up to politicians to hold up that recognition.”

Another advocate, who also asked not to be named, said conferring silk status on those who had applied would help speed up transformation.

“For example, we have a shortage of black female judges. Given that there are women in this limbo, if they had been [senior counsel], they would be regarded as candidates for the Bench.”

Others in limbo include Advocate Themba Skosana of the Pretoria Bar Council.

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