Prosecutor attacks a threat to democracy

June 1st, 2012
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By Kim Hawkey – Editor

Last month the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) and the General Council of the Bar (GCB) spoke out against recent attacks on prosecutors and other members of the legal profession aimed at deterring them from doing their crucial work. These attacks have included threats, harassment, intimidation, theft of documents and laptops, and even being shot at.

In addition, in the past few months there have been reports of judges being afforded protection after receiving death threats relating to cases they are presiding over, of clients being shot in front of their attorneys and of legal practitioners’ offices and homes being burgled.

Last year it was reported that the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Menzi Simelane, informed parliament that acts of intimidation aimed at prosecutors was both widespread and on the rise. He said that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had spent in the region of R 2 million in 2010 on protecting prosecutors who faced threats as a result of the cases they dealt with, adding that a number of prosecutors were being protected by police officers and private security guards.

Similarly, in an article in the March 2011 NPA newsletter Khasho, Mr Simelane said: ‘We have recently seen the prosecutions’ environment becoming very ugly and sometimes even dangerous for some of our prosecutors. For example, some prosecutors are making it onto the hit lists of criminals, are being threatened with death, or harassed and intimidated. The NPA is concerned about this trend …’ (www.npa.gov.za, accessed 7-5-2012).

Due to the nature of their work, many members of the legal profession – judges, magistrates, prosecutors, advocates and attorneys – are at risk of such attacks.

Failure to condemn these actions and provide support to those members of the legal profession who are subjected to them can have a far wider impact than that on the individual member.

These members of the profession play an essential role in attaining justice for their country’s citizens and ensuring voices that may otherwise not be heard are heard. Their work is vital to upholding the rule of law.

The impact of the work they do and the consequences of leaving these attacks unchecked were highlighted by LSSA co-chairpersons Krish Govender and Jan Stemmett, who warned in a statement last month: ‘The prosecutorial service is one of the pillars of our legal system and attacks against any of its members or staff undermines the rule of law. If left unresolved or unchallenged, such attacks could lead to a climate of lawlessness where the judiciary and other stakeholders in the legal and security arena will not be able to carry out their functions fearlessly, without favour and independently. This will ultimately send us down the proverbial slippery slope towards the disintegration of our constitutional democracy.’

Similarly, the chairperson of the GCB, Gerrit Pretorius, said in a statement issued shortly thereafter:

‘These attacks on advocates strike at the heart of the rule of law. Instilling fear in advocates because of the identity of those for and against whom they act is inimical to the values of a democratic society.’

Both professional bodies called on government to respond appropriately to such attacks.

Failure to speak out against such actions can all too easily lead to the situation where prosecutors, who are already working under extreme pressure, are increasingly demotivated – not only by attacks on themselves and their colleagues, but also by a lack of support from those in power, as well as from the public they serve. This, in turn, could lead to high vacancy rates in the prosecutorial service and the inability to attract top prosecutors or, worse, it could lead to prosecutors succumbing to intimidation.

 

The Legal Practice Bill

Just before this edition of De Rebus went to print, the Justice Department published the Legal Practice Bill shortly after Justice Minister Jeff Radebe issued formal notice of his intention to introduce the Bill in the National Assembly.

The Bill, which has been in the pipeline for over a decade, is primarily aimed at transforming the legal profession. The draft legislation provides for the restructuring of the profession, with the creation of the South African Legal Practice Council and regional councils to regulate the affairs of legal practitioners and to set norms and standards for the profession, among others. In addition, the Bill provides for the establishment of a legal services ombud office.

A copy of the Bill can be found at www.justice.gov.za or can be obtained from the Government Printers in Cape Town: (021) 465 7531.

 This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (June) DR 3.