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The Legal Practice Act

The legal profession is regulated by separate statutes. Black people and women are almost entirely absent from the ranks of senior partners in large firms of attorneys and senior counsel at the Bar. They are also largely absent from the controlling bodies of the Bar Councils and Law Societies until recently, when steps were taken to make these bodies more representative.

The broad middle class of South African society, although not indigent, is not able to afford the fees which practising lawyers charge. There is also a lack of equality within the legal profession with regard to qualification requirements for admission to legal practice which leads to the undesirable perception that some lawyers have a higher status than others.

The current prescripts says attorneys are obliged by statute to be members of a law society which exercises professional control over them, whereas membership of societies of advocates is voluntary and many advocates are now practising without being subject to the control of any regulatory authority other than the High Courts.

The distribution of practising lawyers who deliver legal services to the public is also skewed. Most lawyers practise in cities and they service corporations and relatively wealthy people. Rural attorneys tend to be white, male and Afrikaans speaking. They generally provide legal services to the white farmers and local businesses. There are very few lawyers who service the areas in which most black people live - the townships and rural settlements. The few that exist generally have poor resources.

Notes on the Act:

The Legal Practice Act, 2014 (Act 28 of 2014) was signed by the President into law last year 2014.

The Legal Practice Act in simple terms aims to transform the legal profession in South Africa. Some of the main challenges clearly evident are the need to make the legal profession representative of the diversity of South African society and the need to make the legal profession more accessible to the public. The publishing of the Act paves a way for the establishment of a transitional National Forum on the legal profession which will be operational over the next three years.

The South African Legal Practice Council will be tasked with facilitating the realisation of the goal of a transformed and restructured legal profession that is accountable, efficient and independent. It will ensure that fees charged by legal practitioners for legal services rendered are reasonable and promote access to legal services, thereby enhancing access to justice.

The Act also seeks to transform the current borders of legal education to ensure that law graduates develop skills that are relevant to the needs of civil society.  It will provide for all law graduates to be assigned to a period of community service prior to attaining their law degrees in an attempt to improve exposure to social, political and economic issues while increasing access to justice in rural communities. This will change the current legal system from favouring the wealthy, as the less fortunate will have access to justice via law graduates.

The Act makes provision for a legal services ombudsman to be established. The mandate will be to protect and promote the public interest in relation to the rendering of legal services and to ensure the fair, efficient and effective investigation of complaints against allegations of misconduct by legal practitioners.  

The Act also states that disciplinary bodies chosen to adjudicate on cases of alleged misconduct will be open and transparent and will include lawyers and lay persons as well.

2015, Media Research and Liaison