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Making justice accessible, the Legal Aid SA way

Written by Albert Pule
For over 40 years, Legal Aid South Africa has helped millions of South Africans with free legal assistance.

Legal Aid South Africa is a government-funded organisation, which provides lawyers, legal advice and defends people who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers.

In the 2011/12 financial year, the organisation gave legal assistance to 682 962 clients. This is an increase of more than 20 000 clients compared to the 661 398 people helped in 2010/11. In 2009/2010 the number stood at 599 250. A further 254 286 clients were helped by the Legal Aid advice line and justice centres in 2011/12.

The organisation also took on 23 impact litigation matters involving a group of people. Phasha added that Legal Aid South Africa takes pride in the principles of openness, integrity, accountability and recognising the importance of all stakeholders.

Legal Aid South Africa was established in terms of the Legal Aid Act of 1969 as an independent statutory body to give South Africans tax- funded legal services. Its mandate is to ensure that all South Africans have access to justice, regardless of their social or financial status. “Our commitment to deliver quality legal services and efficiency is the driving force behind Legal Aid South Africa,” says Communications Executive Mpho Phasha.

The organisation conducts a means test to determine if an applicant qualifies for legal assistance. “As part of the test, legal aid applicants are required to disclose their monthly income, household and personal possessions, such as car, furniture, clothes etc. This is to ensure that they fall within the stipulated income bracket,” Phasha explains.

How does one qualify for legal aid?

To qualify for Legal Aid, an individual applicant must be earning R5 500 or less per month. If the applicant lives with other people for more than four nights a week and they all share in the costs of food, utility bills etc., they are classified as a household.

To qualify for legal aid, a household must not earn more than R6 000 per month.

Furthermore, if the individual/household does not own a house, their household possessions (such as furniture, clothes etc.) should not exceed R75 000 in value. If the individual/household does own a house, the house and household possessions may not exceed R300 000 in value. In addition, the applicant may only own one house and must live in it.

Case studies

Legal Aid South Africa deals with two types of case: criminal and civil. Criminal cases form a large percentage of the organisation’s work. “We are, however, seeing a marked increase in our civil work.” By means of its impact litigation unit, the organisation provides funding for class action lawsuits. “There is no limit to funding any matter. We ensure that all our lawyers are paid in accordance to the Legal Aid guide,” Phasha said.

“An example of some of the high-profile cases funded by the impact litigation unit is the silicosis matter, in which former miners who contracted an incurable, devastating lung disease caused by excessive exposure to gold mine dust, have filed a lawsuit against their former employer, Anglo Gold South Africa, claiming damages,” Phasha added.

Since its inception, Legal Aid South Africa has grown significantly. “We have a national footprint of 128 offices of which 64 are justice centres and 64 are satellite offices. We also have complete coverage of all the criminal courts in the country,” Phasha said.

In 2010, Legal Aid South Africa opened a call centre mainly to handle queries related to civil matters. “This has compelled us to sharpen our focus on civil matters, hence the establishment of the call centre, which we believe will go a long way to bridging the barriers to legal access,” he explained.

The call centre has always seen steady growth and the latest figures stand at 4 000 calls per month. This has necessitated us to increase our staff capacity.

“An increased budget allocation would enable us to do more civil matters and enable us to in- crease our practitioner per court ratio,” Phasha concluded.

For more information, contact Legal Aid South Africa at the Legal Aid Advice Line: 0800 110 110