JAA discusses the future of the law practice in the digital world at AGM

October 19th, 2020

The Johannesburg Attorneys Association held its annual general meeting virtually on 10 September 2020.

By Kgomotso Ramotsho

The Johannesburg Attorneys Association (JAA) held its annual general meeting (AGM) on 10 September 2020. The AGM was held online due the COVID-19 pandemic under the theme ‘Future of the law practice in the digital world’. Guest speaker, former Chief Master, Lester Basson, said virtual meetings, such as the JAA virtual AGM have shown that professions have to adapt to doing things differently. However, he added that while South Africa (SA) adapts to doing things differently on the one hand, one has to realise that not everybody is going to move with the change.

Mr Basson said the Masters’ Office was created with the purpose of protecting the interests of the vulnerable. He added that one should ask if that is still the main purpose and if not, what has gone wrong? He pointed out that he is a strong supporter of digitisation and gave an example of how the South African Revenue Service (Sars) have been doing things, with regards to its e-filing system. He noted that should one file their taxes on the Sars e-filing system, they are assessed within minutes and in a couple of days their  Sars refunds are paid.

Mr Basson pointed out that the Sars digital system records most of the taxpayers’ information through digitisation. Mr Basson said that when he was still with the Masters’ Office there was a point when they thought of developing a digitised system similar to that of Sars, as the Sars system worked well. He added that as far as there is a good governance system, people should rally around it, support it and build around it so that it can be effective. He said that he would like to see a stage where government consolidates its efforts in information technology (IT) and added that he thinks that day is coming fast.

Mr Basson said that there are other companies doing well in the areas of digitisation. He added that a client’s information is stored in an e-file that can be utilised at any point in time. He pointed out that there is a real opportunity, for example, to cut the cost of administering an estate. He added that it would be interesting to see how the Masters’ Offices manages the people who require its services.

High Court Judge, Roland Sutherland, said the era of digitisation will bring with it challenges of additional costs, as the legal profession becomes more hi-tech. He added there are more overheads to facilitate infrastructure, which will not only mean additional costs in infrastructure, but also costs pertaining to fibre, an Internet connection and the latest gadgets. He pointed out that it also means that both the legal profession and the support staff will need to be upskilled. He added that it means the redundancy of some of the ‘old school’ posts and professions such as, messengers will be endangered.

Judge Sutherland pointed out that it is quite realistic to think that law firms are going to have to face up to the need of fulltime internal IT personnel, in order to make sure that all the systems stay up and running. He added that one wonders if a single person law firm would have all the necessary gadgets in order to practice and maintain market credibility. He said to survive, law firms must have market credibility and if one falls behind technologically it will affect the law firm’s market credibility to practice at the standard that clients expect. He added that a number of small legal practitioner firms who scrape a living together, with no gadgets at all, will be left behind.

Judge Sutherland said the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be confused with digitisation. He said COVID-19 did not cause a digital revolution, but served as an accelerator of what can be done. He added that it has forced people to recognise the next move. He pointed out that digitisation should not be over sold, that it is simply one dimension with a number of other aspects, which also have to be maintained for new innovations. He added that South Africans are not pioneers in the field of digitisation. He said that SA has been playing catch up with the rest of the world for quite a long time, and that SA has had to grapple with the fact that it needs to catch up and to up skill in order to be comfortable in the world of digitisation.

Legal practitioner, Millie Shantall-Lurie spoke about the future of company law and the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) in a digital era. She said smart phones and the Internet demonstrate how digital transformation has brought about far reaching changes to the global economy. She added that these changes are a part of the everyday corporate life and affect almost every industry, including the legal profession. She pointed out that companies and law firms are increasing their use of digital transformation as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and reinvent processes for the digital age. She added that the CIPC is the forerunner in the digital transformation.

Ms Shantall-Lurie said that the introduction of the Companies Act 71 of 2008 on 1 May 2011 saw the establishment of the CIPC as a juristic person, which embarked on a digital transformation process to eradicate the conditional manual filing of applications with their office and instead replacing those with electronic methods. She added that there are, however, still many unresolved issues around legally defensible implementation of digitisation strategies and innovative business models, and that the use of new technologies confronts law firms with new challenges and digital implementation impact, such as data, IT security, and contract design and liability regulations.

Ms Shantall-Lurie pointed out that there is a need for disciplinary collaboration more than ever before. She said with the onset of COVID-19, what is called the ‘new normal’ is the future of digital, and the sooner legal practitioners and companies meet this trend, the better off they will be to keep up with this radically changing landscape. She added that law firms will need to examine and change their structures to support agility. Ms Shantall-Lurie noted that the CIPC, in its second five-year strategic period since its establishment in May 2011, began to optimise the implementation of the Companies Act and other relevant legislation to solidify its role as the reputable regulator and it has continued with innovation that reduces the regulatory burden, especially for small businesses and lessening cost.

Ms Shantall-Lurie said the idea behind the whole digitisation process with CIPC was a pressing need for structural change in the economy. The CIPC had to explore how it would achieve programme alignment with government departments and agencies and the key institutional arrangements that could achieve this.

Property law consultant, Allen West, spoke about property and conveyancing. He said that the land registration system and the security of title is dependent on an efficient land registration system. He added that the economy of SA is based on a good land registration system and for this reason the wheels have turned extremely slowly in regards to the electronic deeds registration system. He pointed out that work has been done with regards to the Electronic Deeds Registration Systems Act 19 of 2019 and a Sectional Titles Act 95 of 1986 together with all the other regulations.

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


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