NADEL discusses the impact of COVID-19 on female legal practitioners

September 14th, 2020
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By Kgomotso Ramotsho

Legal Practice Council (LPC), Chairperson, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, said that the legal profession, like any other sector, is a key contributor in the South African economy.

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) hosted a webinar on 15 August under the theme: ‘Socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on the legal profession, are women disproportionately disadvantaged?’ The webinar featured a panel of dynamic women in the legal profession, including the Legal Practice Council (LPC), Chairperson, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu who said that the legal profession, like any other sector, is a key contributor in the South African economy. She added that the challenges faced in other sectors are often remedied by legal practitioners through legal representation, litigation, mediation and arbitration. She said that in June this year Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) released their Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2020. The results indicated the official unemployment rate in the country increased from 29,1% to 30,1%, compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu added that the unemployment rate is especially high among young people between the ages of 15 to 34. She said that the numbers speak to the socio-economic challenges that are faced in South Africa (SA). She pointed out that every legal practitioner has to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and make sure that they are technologically equipped in order to continue fulfilling their obligations as legal practitioners and, at the same time, deal with the growing fear of redundancy and also manage the expectations of their employees.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu said the LPC currently has 34 000 legal practitioners on the roll, most of which create jobs in the legal sector. According to Ms Matolo-Dlepu it has been proved that law firms have created job opportunities for women and the demise of these law firms will contribute to the demise of socio-economic development of women as there are law firms who provide bursaries, social development initiatives and pro bono services for women. Ms Matolo-Dlepu pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an enormous burden on the legal profession to continue the much-needed support for women, and that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt by many for years to come.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu said the Stats SA labour report states that in both the first quarter of 2019 and 2020 more than four in every ten young females were unemployed, she added that they were not given training opportunities and were mostly black women. Out of the 34 000 legal practitioners on the roll more than 9 000 are between the ages of 25 and 35 and over 5 000 are women. Ms Matolo-Dlepu, however, said if one looked at the overall numbers there are less black female legal practitioners. She added that the LPC is empowered by the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA), which provides the legislative framework for fundamental confirmation and restructuring of the legal profession in line with the constitutional imperatives and broadening access to justice.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu noted that the devastating impact of COVID-19 demands that the legal profession must fast track and develop innovative ways to transform the legal profession. ‘This is important if we have to deal with the socio-economic impact that will linger even after the pandemic. A transformed legal profession is essential to the sustainability of the sector and the LPC wants to work with all stakeholders to ensure that legal practitioners are able to sustain themselves, to survive in the profession and that they are able to access work from private sector, government and state-owned entities,’ Ms Matolo-Dlepu said.

Legal Practitioner and Secretary General of the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa (PABASA), Xoliswa Sibeko said that SA is struggling with populist leaders who think only of themselves and no one else. Leaders who will say anything that will appease people at that point in time with no regard to the follow-up. Leaders who ensure that at least they do not just talk but they walk the talk. She added that the majority must speak in one voice and air their feelings on issues and strengthen civil society, so that society can begin to hold leaders accountable.

Ms Sibeko pointed out that entities, such as the Hawks, should not just pursue certain groups and let others walk free when they have done wrong. She added that the judiciary is also a target as some believe that certain judges are labelled to belong to certain sanctions. She said that associations, such as NADEL, have to begin to fight and make sure that they raise their voices and hold leaders in the judiciary accountable, so that everyone does not get painted with the same brush. She added that the legal profession must also defend the leaders in the judiciary who are doing the right things.

Ms Sibeko pointed out that it is concerning that there is a level of panic that makes people lose focus on the real issues and that may result in serious issues being left aside, for example, the focus is only on COVD-19 and yet it is not the only disease that kills people.

President of the South African Women Lawyers Association, Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe, said that COVID-19 came at a time when no one expected it and its impact changed how people do things, especially in the work sector where most activities are done electronically.

The President of the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA), Nomaswazi Shabangu-Mndawe, said that COVID-19 came at a time when no one expected it and its impact changed how people do things, especially in the work sector where most activities are done electronically. However, she added that legal practitioners who have offices in the rural areas are struggling as they experience network problems. She added that most of the time legal practitioners who are in the rural areas are forgotten about, adding that many legal practitioners operate by means of physically going to court and representing their clients but because matters are handled via online platforms those legal practitioners are unable to finalise their matters and they will not be able to get paid since they are not doing the work.

Ms Shabangu-Mndawe added that there are legal practitioners who have closed their practices and are now seeking employment. She said that COVID-19 has not only hindered the lives of legal practitioners but also of other employees who are employed by legal practitioners, who mostly are women, and this led to many being unemployed in communities. Ms Shabangu-Mndawe pointed out that the effect of COVID-19 means that it will take years for many legal practitioners to recover. She said that serious intervention is needed. ‘There were a number of relief funds that were introduced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, but unfortunately, not one is of any good for female legal practitioners as the requirements exclude legal practitioners’, said Ms Shabangu-Mndawe.

Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said that it is a known fact that not all law firms have Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) documents and that was the number one requirement for the relief fund. She added that COVID-19 in fact confirmed and proved that female legal practitioners were in a lockdown, even before the actual lockdown happened. She pointed out that for years there has been a fight for the empowerment of female legal practitioners who are always overlooked in favour of their male counterparts. Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said if female legal practitioners were properly empowered and given the same opportunities as their male counterparts are given, there would be no need for gatherings to discuss how female legal practitioners have to close their practices because of the lack of work.

Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said policies that will force government to change its narrative must be implemented – as the government is the legal practitioners’ biggest client – so that more black legal practitioners would get briefs and ensure that senior counsel who get work, include black female legal practitioners so that the knowledge can be filtrated downwards. She pointed out that the legal profession cannot any longer be proud that there are black male legal practitioners with silk status who have institutionalised knowledge only for them to die with it. ‘Those who have must share with the have nots,’ Ms Shabangu-Mndawe added.

Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said the move in terms of the LPA, to create uniformity in the legal profession is the best thing that has happened to the legal profession, however, she added that the implementation would not seem possible as there are those who are resisting uniformity. Ms Shabangu-Mndawe pointed out that the days where there is worry that female legal practitioners cannot compete with male legal practitioners are gone. Ms Shabangu-Mndawe noted that COVID-19 has affected many in different ways but pointed out that it has exacerbated the challenges that female legal practitioners have been living under.

Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said in order for female legal practitioners to be transformed there must be a paradigm shift and breaking of the tradition of patriarchy. She added that it is organisations such as SAWLA, Black Lawyers Association, NADEL and PABASA to take it on themselves to ensure that they are the catalyst of change in the legal profession. ‘The legal legacy we have envisaged to live by must be the epitome of the former Minister of Justice Dullah Omar. We acknowledge that many policies have been developed but the implementation is the problem, and legal practitioners must make sure there is implementation of such policies and adopt effective management information systems to ensure that those who implement policies receive adequate, appropriate and relevant training and development. We also need to develop clear performance indicators in line with priority areas to ensure effective monitoring and evaluation of progress,’ Ms Shabangu-Mndawe said.

Legal practitioner and National Executive Committee member of NADEL and member of the Law Society of South Africa’s House of Constituents, Eunice Masipa, said that generally and historically women have always been disproportionally displaced within the legal profession. She added that as a young sole practitioner she has to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to secure any form of law related work. Ms Masipa said one can imagine that in the era of COVID-19 the socio-economic impact and disposition is now more apparent than ever on young female sole practitioners.

Ms Masipa pointed out that when the national lockdown was announced in March, everyone including clients of legal practitioners saw the need to retain whatever liquidity they had. ‘So whichever outstanding statements that we had, our clients were no longer settling those statements’, Ms Masipa added. She said while all of this was happening the landlord and other companies that had to be paid, such as Telkom, did not care that legal practitioners were not getting an income. They are still expected to be paid. She added that when the legal profession was declared an essential service, instructions that were coming in were few but those few instructions she had to execute as pro bono and agreed to collect fees at a later stage because access to justice is very close to her heart.

Ms Masipa noted that the impact of COVID-19 has been devastating. She said the little reserves small firms such as hers had would not even last for four months. She added that some law firms had to lay off staff, however, when one lays off staff, the firm’s efficiency gets compromised and disproportion comes into place. She added for her it is a personal challenge, especially being a single parent, as the child’s school is still expecting to be paid. Ms Masipa said she had to resort to starting a small business of making cakes to try and stream in other income to help her in this difficult time.

Ms Masipa added when the LPC announced that they have established a Legal Practitioners Benevolent Scheme (the Benevolent Scheme), many young sole practitioners were excited that they will get some assistance in these dark times, however, she pointed out that the excitement was short-lived as one of the requirements stated in order for a legal practitioner to qualify was that they have to be in good standing. She said that some legal practitioners, more especially sole practitioners, were not able to pay their subscription fees and that meant they would be excluded from receiving the R 5 000 payment from the Benevolent Scheme from the LPC.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.