Problems at the Master’s office

November 1st, 2023

On 20 October 2023, the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) appeared before the justice and parliamentary committee to voice legal practitioners’ concerns over the issues experienced at the Master’s office. In its problem statement and recommendations, the LSSA noted with appreciation the Portfolio Committee’s engagements with the Chief Master on the state of affairs at the Masters’ offices and its oversight visits to some of the Masters’ offices. However, the Masters’ offices across the country have continued to have service delivery issues.

In its capacity as a representative organisation, the LSSA has previously attempted to engage with the Minister of Justice and Correctional Service, the Deputy Minister of Justice, and the Chief Master with a view of finding meaningful solutions, with little or no success.

The LSSA notes that the Masters’ offices have not been functioning as they should for several years and the COVID-19 pandemic, including loadshedding, have exacerbated the situation. The Masters’ offices are, among others, responsible for the registration and supervision of the administration of deceased estates. According to its website: ‘The purpose is to ensure an orderly winding up of the financial affairs of the deceased, and the protection of the financial interests of the heirs.’

In its problem statement, the LSSA added that: ‘The continuous loadshedding adds to the Masters’ offices’ woes. During this pivotal juncture, the Masters’ offices have exhibited a deeply concerning failure in meeting the needs of the South African public. Regrettably, they have been unable to establish a substantial level of trust among both the legal community and the public. Their embedded culture and malfunctioning operations not only hinder progress, but also display a distinct lack of proactive planning and a dearth of urgency. Immediate attention and corrective measures are imperative to address these critical shortcomings and gain the confidence of stakeholders.’

The LSSA also commented on the performance targets of the Masters’ offices, captured on pages 52 and 53 of the Annual Report for 2021-22 of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. Noting that ‘the statistics are in stark contrast to the realities experienced by legal practitioners in their quest to assist members of the public.

On multiple occasions, the LSSA has pointed out that legal practitioners have previously contributed to alleviating administrative backlogs and processing delays within state departments, thereby enhancing the administration of justice. Considering this, the LSSA expressed the view that a similar intervention could be pursued within a defined timeframe to alleviate the current backlog. This option has unfortunately not been pursued.

The LSSA made the following recommendations to assist in resolving some of the issues experienced at the Masters’ office:

  • All Masters’ offices must be directed to embrace communication by electronic mail. This would be a meaningful intervention and significantly improve turnaround times for the administration of estates. Legislative changes should be made as soon as possible to facilitate this, where required. The proposed amendments in the Judicial Matters Amendment Bill B7 of 2023 relating to the Administration of Estates Act 66 of 1965 should be reconsidered.
  • The amendments to the Trust Property Control Act 57 of 1988, pursuant to the provisions of the General Laws (Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorism Financing) Amendment Act 22 of 2022, have created additional responsibilities for the Masters’ offices, which will require additional The new provisions will also create hardship for members of the public. The LSSA intends to make representations for an amendment of the Act.
  • All vacant posts need to be filled urgently, including the appointment of a permanent Chief
  • All officials should receive training to enhance efficiency and customer
  • The Portfolio Committee could perhaps prescribe further requirements for annual reporting regarding the performance of targets by the Master’s office, as the Annual Report in this regard does not appear to depict the reality experienced by practitioners.

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This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (Nov) DR 3.