THE government wants black lawyers to get a bigger slice of the state’s multibillion-rand legal bill. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe will introduce a policy this year to force government departments and state-owned enterprises to ensure that black-owned legal firms benefit from the state’s legal bill.
Tabling his department’s budget of R15.4-billion in the National Assembly, Radebe said his department would release a policy framework on Monday on the "transformation of the state legal services”.
Radebe is also set for a showdown with the legal profession after indicating he would table the long-awaited Legal Practice Bill in parliament, which is set to introduce wholesale changes into the governance of the profession. The envisaged reforms seek to strengthen capacity within the Office of the State Law Adviser, which has often been accused of giving poor legal advice to government departments.
"The envisaged reforms are aimed at addressing some of the shortcomings in the current system [which] result in the government losing court cases it ought not to have lost, or embarking on ill-fated litigation resulting in huge costs to the fiscus,” he said.
Radebe’s proposed reforms would also set guidelines on how government departments should prioritise law firms owned by black people and women.
Although he could not indicate exactly how much the state was spending on procuring legal services, Radebe said the expenditure amounted to billions of rands.
"The intended reforms are also aimed at broadening the pool of legal practitioners who are briefed by the state to ensure that [we] reflect a fair representation of black and women practitioners consistent with the racial and gender demographics of society,” Radebe said.
"The government is the major litigant in Africa. It’s billions of rands if one takes into account that it is not only national government, provinces and municipalities. We also talk about SOEs; the aim is to ensure a properly coordinated state legal service for the republic.” The ANC Youth League has long been lambasting the government for giving business to predominantly white-owned legal firms at the disadvantage of black firms.
Professional lobby groups such as the Black Lawyers’ Association have also criticised the government for not empowering black attorneys.
Radebe said the exclusion of black and female attorneys from cases in the Constitutional Court and other high-profile legal matters was counter-productive to the government’s broad goal of transforming the judiciary.
"The scarcity of black and women practitioners from the pool of practitioners who continue to dominate constitutional and other high-profile litigation has a consequential effect on the slow pace of the transformation as the profession is the main feeder to the judiciary,” Radebe said in reference to the tradition of recruiting candidates for judicial positions to fill vacant positions in the high courts from the bar councils.
Radebe also announced that the Legal Practice Bill, which has been on and off the table in the last 14 years, had been certified by Chief State Law Adviser Enver Daniels and he would soon present it to parliament for tabling.
The proposed law is likely to be controversial because it seeks to do away with crucial bodies governing the legal profession, such as the Law Society of South Africa, and change how the bar councils are governed.
"The Law Society as we know it at the moment will eventually disappear and be replaced by the National Legal Practice Council, which will have regional bodies in all of the provinces.
"From the time the national council is established, it will enter into consultation with existing law societies and the bar councils to discuss the transfer of assets and staff,” Daniels said.