Black advocate cries foul

2013-05-05 14:00

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Big four law firms cited as racial monopoly

A frustrated black advocate from Cape Town is taking on South Africa’s most prestigious law firms for “deliberately excluding black African advocates” from cases.

Simba Chitando, an advocate of the Cape Bar, is asking the competition tribunal for an interdict compelling four firms to “brief all advocates from the Cape Bar with shipping-law background” in such cases, irrespective of “their race or nationality”.

In the South African legal system, advocates are briefed by attorneys at law firms, which has led to what Chitando believes are “anti-competitive practices”.

In his affidavit filed before the tribunal, he says the law firms brief an exclusive group of “predominantly white advocates at the Cape Bar and the Maritime Lawyers’ Association (SA)”.

Chitando, who is originally from Zimbabwe, completed a master’s degree in law at the University of Cape Town and wrote a thesis on maritime law.

Despite this, he says he has only ever received “empty promises”, which have not led to a single maritime- or shipping-law brief from the law firms.

“It’s not because of competence. I have the qualifications. I have not had an opportunity to mess up a brief because I’ve never received a brief to mess up,” he said.

The four law firms that have been cited – Webber Wentzel, Bowman Gilfillan, Shepstone Wylie and Norton Rose – will oppose the application, but have not yet filed affidavits.

This is not the first time racial-briefing patterns have come under scrutiny in the legal profession.

Last month, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng told the

Commonwealth Law Conference in Cape Town that there was a natural inclination to support “those you know”.

“Naturally, because our white compatriots are really in the ­commanding heights of the economy, they give instructions to white attorneys, who in turn brief white advocates,” Mogoeng said.

Chitando’s case is based on what he says are two violations of the Competition Act. He alleges there is a vertical relationship between law firms and certain white advocates, which has the effect of lessening competition in the market.

“I’ve been told by various lawyers that the advocates that the (law firms) distribute work to are former employees.

“This is clear evidence that there is an unwritten vertical relationship built over time that is anti-competitive to the extent that it is used to keep out advocates like myself, who do not have vertical connections,” he says.

Chitando also alleges that the law firms have abused their position of dominance by “specifically refusing” to deal with him.

“They have disproportionate economic power in the legal ­industry, which is skewed by ­historical racial exploitation.”

Gavin Fitzmaurice, head of shipping practice at Webber Wentzel, denied his firm was involved in any restrictive vertical practice or was dominant in the market.

“Webber Wentzel is committed to giving black counsel an equal opportunity to demonstrate their skills and to gain experience in commercial legal practice – including shipping law,” he says. “We always try to brief black advocates within the scope and constraints of our clients’ expectations.”

He adds that Webber Wentzel “would never exclude an advocate from working on briefs based on their colour or ethnicity, or any other discriminatory ground”.

Bowman Gillfillan also confirmed it would answer all allegations made against it.

City Press was unable to obtain comment from Shepston Wylie or Norton Rose, but they have indicated they will oppose the case.

The Maritime Lawyers’ Association SA declined to comment.

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