Promoting a just society through law

May 1st, 2012

By Nomfundo Manyathi

The University of South Africa (Unisa) Law Clinic launched three community outreach programmes in Pretoria on 29 March. The outreach programmes consist of the establishment of moot court competitions, practical legal seminars for fourth and final year students and a street/community law programme aimed at educating the public about their rights. The theme of the launch was ‘Promoting a just society’.

The keynote speakers at the launch were the Law Society of South Africa’s chief executive officer, Nic Swart, and regional court magistrate Pravesh Singh. Other speakers included the director of Unisa’s School of Law, Professor Michele Havenga; the director of sustainable livelihoods at the Department of Social Development, Alfa Mahlako; head of the law clinic, Hadley Saayman; and a number of law clinic staff.

In his speech, Mr Swart urged the legal students present not to become ‘withdrawn’ when it appeared that their cause in fighting for a just society was failing. He added that often activists became withdrawn and stopped pursuing their cause when they believed that what they were doing was in vain. Mr Swart added that South Africa may never have a just society in ‘its perfect form’, but that attorneys should not give up trying to achieve this. He said that the street/community law programme that was being launched would assist in spreading the word on human rights to those in the community who were old, ill or who did not have the means to travel to law clinics.

Mr Swart concluded his speech by saying that the clinic would have an ‘enormous impact’ in educating the community as it was both national and mobile.

Mr Singh said that South Africa boasted a constitutional order that was ‘vibrant, responsive and dynamic’, adding that the Constitution ensured that vulnerable and marginalised people were protected and that their quality of life improved. He added that the question often posed was: ‘Whose job is it to create and promote the model of such a just society?’ He responded to this question by saying: ‘Surely this question captivates all of us driven by the responsibility to improve our own lives and to assist the millions of people who wish to share in the national dream of a free and just society of equal opportunities for all’. Mr Singh added that a just society demanded that the public take a proactive stance and that South Africa could not be ‘a nation of bystanders’.

Mr Singh also highlighted the role of the small claims court and the magistrate’s court, which he said were at the ‘coalface of justice’. He said that the small claims court served as a vital forum where simple, ordinary civil disputes involving claims not exceeding R12 000 were adjudicated at no cost to the litigants except the sheriff’s fees. He said: ‘In my personal experience it is the poorest of the poor who access these courts. I single out the attorneys’ profession in particular, which has been offering their services after hours to adjudicate disputes as commissioners, free of charge, since 1984. They breathe life into the civil justice system by continuing to keep these structures in place.’

Mr Singh said that in 2010 an amendment to the Magistrates’ Courts Act 32 of 1944 extended civil and divorce jurisdiction to regional courts. He said that members of the profession were increasingly making use of the civil regional courts in matters where the jurisdictional threshold exceeded that of the district courts and to finalise divorces and related matters. He added that this was ‘encouraging’ and that in the long run this trend would prove to be cost effective and less time consuming, and would also allow greater access to justice. ‘The effect will also lessen the burden of the High Court roll, particularly in divorce matters and those matters where individual claims or the value of the matters do not exceed R 30 000. Regional court magistrates have committed themselves to accept these new challenges and have successfully attended civil case flow management workshops.’

Mr Singh concluded his speech by discussing the Civil Justice Reform Project, which will result in a complete overhaul of the civil justice system. The project includes the introduction of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism in the form of mandatory court-based mediation. He said: ‘The main objects of the project, we are told, are the alignment of the civil justice system with constitutional values, simplification and harmonisation of laws and rules, making justice easily and equally accessible, with a focus particularly on vulnerable and poor members of society.’ He said that South Africa was in line for ‘some exciting legal times ahead’.

Mr Mahlako said that for a just society to exist there was a need, to some extent, for invocation of some cultural norms and practices that keep societies afloat, especially during times of tribulation and difficulty.

Mr Mahlako said that in various societies, including South Africa, the gap between the rich and the poor was wide and growing, adding that too great a gap between the rich and the poor undermined the solidarity that just societies required. He said that as inequality deepened, rich and poor lived increasingly separate lives, which was a negative factor in a just society. ‘Justice cannot find comfortable refuge in a society where there is promotion of personal affluence and public squalor,’ he said.

Some of the Unisa Law Clinic staff also provided an outline of the community outreach programmes being launched. Shaida Mohamed from the clinic told De Rebus that successful pilots of the programmes were run from October to December 2011, which led to their official launch.

Nomfundo Manyathi,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2012 (May) DR 9.