‘You can get a law degree for a toffee’

2013-02-20 17:24

Advocate Izak Smuts today warned Parliament that it would be “gravely irresponsible” for it to adopt the controversial Legal Practice Bill.

Last week Smuts made headlines when he resigned from his position as deputy chair of the General Council of the Bar (GCB), which regulates most South African advocates, over disagreements about the bill.

In a strongly worded submission to Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and constitutional development today, Smuts said the bill was “so devoid of real content” that it did not address any of the issues which it sought to address.

The bill envisions an umbrella body to regulate both the attorneys and advocates professions.

It also states that it is aimed at providing access to justice for all South Africans and breaking down the barriers to the entry of an exclusive profession.

But Smuts today said: “If the legislature were today to enact this piece of legislation, what litigant would be able to say, ‘Eureka! I have access to justice and point to any aspect of this bill that gives a litigant greater access to justice?’”

Smuts said the bill was instead aimed at providing government with a means of taking control of the governance of the legal profession.

His main disagreement with the GCB has been over what form of regulation would be consistent with the rule of law and the independence of the legal profession.

The GCB, in a submission also made to Parliament today, has called for a chamber of advocates and a chamber of attorneys to be created to govern the affairs of the two professions separately.

But Smuts said this was inconsistent with the independence of the legal profession, and wants a super regulator that will draw up codes of conduct and accredit existing voluntary associations of the bar, such as bar councils.

Smuts also pointed out that the profession was already regulated in certain ways and that, ironically, the “frontiers of regulation by the legislature have been drawn back in recent times”.

“(The legislature) has amended the education requirement to create a lesser (LLB) qualification, it’s removed the language requirement, it’s apparently now the view of the legislature that you don’t have to have any linguistic competency to be a practising advocate,” he said.

Smuts said “unrealistic expectations” about entry to the profession had been created because you could now “get a law degree for a toffee”.

“People are emerging at the doors of (advocates) chambers seeking permission to pupilage who ought not have matric, but they have an LLB (law degree),” he said, calling for a raising of standards.

It also today emerged that the GCB could not find consensus among its own members on some provisions of the bill.

The GCB’s submission notes that some members are of the opinion that the minister should be allowed to appoint people to the legal practice council, although stating that this should be reduced to a single appointee and not three.

It noted that certain members were of the opinion that the bill created the office of legal ombudsman, to be appointed by the president, and that this was sufficient to safeguard matters of public interest in the regulation of the legal profession.

This mirrored the situation at the hearings yesterday, when it emerged that the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), which governs and regulates attorneys, was also conflicted about the bill.

The law society said that some members were opposed to the minister having the power to dissolve the council, whereas others supported it.

The LSSA has also failed to reach consensus with the advocates profession, with its submission stating that the regional legal practice council, which is also envisioned by the bill, should be divided into distinct chambers for advocates and attorneys.

Today, employees of the LSSA also made a submission stating that the bill created “uncertainty about the future” of the LSSA and that employees were concerned about losing their jobs.

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