Legal Practice Bill divides profession

2013-02-19 18:45

South Africa’s legal profession is deeply divided over the contentious Legal Practice Bill.

This was apparent today, as Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and constitutional development began its first day of hearings on the bill, which envisions a complete overhaul of the legal profession.

The Legal Practice Bill provides for the creation of a legal practice council which will regulate all the affairs of both attorneys and lawyers.

It today became clear that there was no consensus among the country’s lawyers on the bill, with the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), which regulates the majority of attorneys, holding “differing views”.

The association also admitted that it had “failed dismally” in finding consensus with the General Council of the Bar, which represents advocates.

Busani Mabunda, president of the Black Lawyers Association, which forms part of the LSSA, told the committee today, that as much as “independence (of the legal profession) is valued and is necessary, political oversight with the view of healing a society which is imperfect is instructive”.

Pointing to the untransformed nature of the legal profession, Mabunda said the BLA “did not see a problem” with a section of the act that gave the minister of justice the power to dissolve the council.

“(The section) does not envision a situation where the minister will rise one morning and say: ‘This council must go’. (The minister) cannot go on a frolic.”

Mabunda said there were sufficient checks and balances in the language of the bill, and also pointed out that the bill left it open to any interested party to approach the court and have a decision to dissolve set aside.

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers, also part of LSSA, also agreed on this.

But Mabunda was soon contradicted by LSSA co-chairperson, Jan Stemmet, who spoke on behalf of attorneys outside of BLA and Nadel.

“The power to dissolve, whatever checks and balances you put in place, the principal that minister should be able to dissolve council should not apply and that once again should rest with the court,” he said.

Stemmet also asked the committee to remove a “funny clause” which allows the minister to allow any person to practise law, regardless of that person’s qualification.

Over the course of the morning, it became clear from submissions, including those made by the Independent Association of Advocates of SA, the Attorneys Fidelity Fund, the Competition Commission and the Legal Resources Centre, that there was very little consensus on the bill.

Some of the chief sticking points have been related to issues concerning access to justice, whether high legal fees should be capped and transformation of the legal profession.

Some submissions also made note of long-standing feuds between different bodies representing parts of the legal profession.

Last week, the bill caused upheavel in the General Council of the Bar, which represent most advocates, when its deputy chairperson, Izak Smuts resigned over the bar’s submission.

The hearings are set to continue tomorrow.

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