Community service via technology – what legal practitioners can do

December 1st, 2022

Picture source: Gallo Images/Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic drove legal practitioners, the judiciary, and academics to adopt innovative new practices and use unfamiliar technology to conduct their business. Members of the legal profession had to embrace technology to enable them to work remotely and ‘meet’ each other and engage with clients on virtual platforms such as Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams. New software was also introduced in the legal fraternity, such as CaseLines. This is a digital case management and litigation system, launched by the Gauteng Division of the High Court in 2020, which enables trials, motions, and appeals to be heard in court online, from one’s office or home (see Legal practitioners can now enrol new civil matters, file documents, and present evidence electronically, resolving some of the problems of the traditional paper-based system. E-filing, enabling legal practitioners to access evidence stored in an online court system, has also been embraced.

While legal practitioners and courts adopted new technologies to transform the handling of disputes, university academics also had to use technology to deliver lectures to their students so that they were not abandoned during the pandemic. Although the push to use technology may cause feelings of isolation through the absence of human contact, it also holds considerable advantages, saving transportation costs and travelling time. So technological advances have played a critical role in the legal profession and changed the nature of legal practice.

The use of technology in the legal fraternity will probably continue long after the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic have subsided. We submit that technology must now be broadened in the legal profession to educate and empower disadvantaged communities, particularly those in remote areas, by providing legal education to them on matters relevant to their daily lives.

In this regard, the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 (LPA) emphasises community service and the provision of legal education and training. One of its purposes is to broaden access to justice by putting in place measures to provide for the rendering of community service by candidate legal practitioners and practising legal practitioners (s 3(b)(ii)). The Minister of Justice and Correctional Services must prescribe the requirements for community service after consulting the Legal Practice Council. This set of requirements may include –

‘(a) community service as a component of practical vocational training by candidate legal practitioners; or

(b) a minimum period of recurring community service by practising legal practitioners upon which continued enrolment as a legal practitioner is dependent’ (s 29(1)).

Community service in this context may include providing legal education and training, an academic institution, or a non-governmental organisation (s 29(2)(d)). Consequently, the use of technology by candidate legal practitioners and legal practitioners may satisfy the community service requirement in s 29 of the LPA. To elaborate on how legal practitioners could use technology to empower disadvantaged communities, we use Unisa’s virtual street law programme as a practical case study below.

Unisa’s virtual street law programme

Unisa’s street law programme is run by Unisa Law Clinic legal practitioners and Unisa academics, who teach LLB students about various disciplines of the law to enable them to empower lay persons by providing them with practical information about the law and how it can be used in their everyday lives. Unisa is an Open Distance e-Learning (ODeL) environment, which means that it gives students affected by the barriers of distance, cost, and time an opportunity to pursue their studies online. Yet its street law programme has traditionally been conducted in a classroom setting. In 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of technology in the legal fraternity, the Unisa Street Law committee decided to continue empowering community members and students with useful, practical legal knowledge in a way that was safe and efficient. The best method of achieving this objective was through technology.

Students were educated on a range of topics, including domestic violence, employment law, business enterprises, child bullying, and wills and estates, so they could use this knowledge to educate community members on their current legal problems. Given South Africa’s high unemployment rate, especially among the youth, it was thought necessary to empower students and community members with knowledge relating to employment law, the procedures relating to unfair dismissals and retrenchment, and the procedures of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, among other important aspects. Considering the job losses, it became relevant to educate unemployed community members on the forms of business enterprises available to enable them to take the first step in starting their own small businesses. Wills and estates also became a grimly relevant topic as the death rate climbed during the pandemic. Students were taught about the importance of having a will and how to draft a valid one, so they could share this knowledge with their communities.

Computer literacy is vital today and students learn about using technology to share information virtually through online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Facebook Live. They are also taught how to prepare, design, and deliver an online presentation. This learning enhances student support in an ODeL environment and relieves anxiety about using technology. Students from remote areas could access the training without a daily commute. The training sessions are also recorded, enabling convenient replaying, bolstering insight and knowledge retention, and learning at one’s own speed. Students who are unable to afford data were given data so that they would not be excluded from virtual learning. The training taught students valuable legal and technological skills and encouraged them to collaborate with community members.


Taking Unisa’s virtual street law programme as an example, we recommend that candidate legal practitioners and legal practitioners use technology to empower communities and educate them about their legal rights. For example, using online platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, legal practitioners could give talks to women in women’s shelters on their legal rights in instances of domestic violence. They could be educated about the envisaged online portal to be introduced by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. This convenient innovation will enable complainants and other interested parties to apply for a protection order online, rather than travelling to a court to get one. Legal practitioners could also use online platforms to chat to the elderly in old age homes about the drafting, updating, and safekeeping of their wills. And they could educate school children, teachers, and their parents in remote areas about handling child bullying within the framework of the law.

Legal practitioners could also give online talks to groups of people in community halls in rural areas. If the group of persons on the other side can access one computer or laptop and the Internet, legal practitioners can reach large groups at once. We also encourage legal practitioners to show flexibility in enabling people to access these services even if they lack technology to overcome the digital divide – for example, legal practitioners could use ‘old’ technology, such as radio and television, in new ways. A single device can reach many people simultaneously. Community members could even access these sessions on their mobile phones. Legal practitioners could answer questions and provide one-on-one advice at these gatherings. Recordings of the talks may be shared in communities, especially where Internet connectivity is intermittent or unreliable, so that greater numbers of persons can access the information. Another useful technological tool is Facebook Live, which legal practitioners may use to convey pertinent information to the public and empower them about their legal rights on significant topics.

Providing these services may very well fulfil the community service requirement in the LPA of providing legal education and training. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in technology being used to modernise and transform the legal profession – now it is time to use technology to empower and uplift disadvantaged and isolated communities.

Rehana Cassim BA (cum laude) LLB (cum laude) LLM (cum laude) (Wits) LLD (Unisa) is a Professor in the Mercantile Law Department at Unisa and a member of the Unisa Street Law programme. Shaida Mahomed LLB (Unisa) is a legal practitioner at the Unisa Law Clinic and the Unisa Street Law Coordinator in Pretoria.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2022 (Dec) DR 13.

De Rebus