Pro bono attorneys acknowledged

December 1st, 2014

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

Probono.Org held its inaugural Pro Bono Awards in Johannesburg on 7 October to highlight and acknowledge the work done by individuals and firms in the private legal profession; to raise the awareness of pro bono work; and to encourage more lawyers and firms to participate.

The guest speaker at the event was judge of the Gauteng Division of the High Court (formerly the North Gauteng High Court), Kathleen Satchwell, who said that there is value in working for others, in helping others when they cannot help themselves but added: ‘… we all know the Mao story about teaching a man to fish for himself. And where you show people there is a way out of a problem … when you share knowledge and skills and people realise things can be done – and by them – then you are empowering others.’

Judge Satchwell said that empowerment is on many levels. She said that tackling an obstructionist or rude or careless civil servant shows your client that civil servants are meant to be working for him or her and all of us, which empowers the citizen. Judge Satchwell made another example by saying that holding government, an employer or service provider accountable reminds your client that dishonesty or incompetence can be challenged and that citizens do not have to put up with it, adding that this is empowering the citizen.

Judge Satchwell noted that none of this is easy. ‘I know that there is a lot of waiting, a lot of sitting in cold rooms, a lot of listening, and much heartache when there is no help to be offered. The victories are very few. I worked as an attorney for 18 years in Johannesburg. Many of my clients had no access to telephones, transport, documents and records. Somehow injustices done to the poor and the marginalised were always exacerbated by their lack of access to facilities such as a photocopy machine and my lack of time and energy,’ she said.

Judge Satchwell applauded everyone who has worked with ProBono.Org. She added that this kind of work is seen as ‘extra’ or ‘on top of’ or ‘additional to’ a real legal practice because ‘a real legal practice’ has to pay rent, salaries, buy stationary, repair equipment etcetera. She said: ‘We all have to work out how to keep legal practices alive and profitable. But to do pro bono work is either to earn less or to work harder. Whichever happens – it is a sacrifice of sorts – of money or time or energy.’

Judge Satchwell said that the Constitution is wonderful piece of paper that proclaims ideals and rights for all of us – rich and poor, of every race and creed. ‘But it means very little if we cannot enforce those rights. I have had occasion to enforce my rights before the Constitutional Court – I could not possibly have afforded so to do – but I had an attorney and an advocate who worked pro bono,’ she said.

Judge Satchwell said that often constitutional principles can only be brought into the real world through the law and that for that, one needs to be able to use the law, which means that they need to be able to access the courts. ‘For that, one needs to be literate, have a computer and paper, access to e-mail, know the jargon and feel bigger and stronger than ones opponent. For all of that one needs pro bono and its teams,’ she said.

Judge Satchwell concluded by saying that although the older generation may feel despondent at the state of the nation, it can be happy that things are better in this country. ‘No longer is race and language and gender the basis upon which people participate in this society. No longer are there pass laws and unequal facilities. No longer is there censorship and no political debate. We do have a demanding press, we do have courts which know they are accountable to the Constitution, and we do have politicians and civil servants who can be forced to respond to society’s needs,’ she said.

Director at ProBono.Org, Erica Emdon, told De Rebus that they did not receive as many entries as they had hoped, but believed that as people become more aware of the awards they will enter.

Awards were given to law firms or individuals who contributed in pro bono work in 2013. The winners were:

In the category of –

  • The most pro bono hours by a law firm with:

–        Over 50 professionals: International law firm, Faskin Martineau Attorneys.

–        Between ten and 50 practitioners: Johannesburg law firm, Mervyn Taback Inc.

–        Firm with less than ten practitioners: Johannesburg law firm, Mabaso Attorneys.

  • Full time pro bono attorney that undertook the most pro bono hours: Tricia Erasmus of DLA Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.
  • Part time pro bono attorney: Elze Lamprecht of Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa.
  • Advocate that undertook the most hours: Nadine Fourie.
  • Journalist that gave pro bono work the most coverage: Victoria John of the Mail and Guardian.

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (Dec) DR 11.


De Rebus