Deputy Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr John Jeffery;
The Legal Ombudsman, Justice Siraj Desai;
Other Judges present;
Chief Executive Officer for RAF, Attorneys Fidelity Fund and IPID;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
Next to the tax man, legal services are probably something we will all come across in our lifetime. Those who use legal services do so at some of life’s most significant moments, whether buying a new home, ending a contract, relationship or seeking redress for personal injury.
During the past two years, important foundations in the legal profession have been laid. These must translate into improved service for members of the society who use legal services. It is against this background, that His Excellency, President Ramaphosa appointed Justice Desai as South Africa’s Legal Service Ombudsman.
When appointing Judge Desai, President Ramaphosa said the following, “Judge Desai has devoted the greater part of his life to serving the nation as a judge and I am confident he will take the legal profession to new heights by ensuring that those in the profession meet the ethical standards required in a legal system that serves all South Africans with fairness and dignity within the rule of law,” Unquote.
In terms of Section 47 of the Legal Practice Act No 28 of 2014, Justice Desai is empowered to investigate complaints, alleged maladministration, within the ambit of the Act, and actions which may affect the integrity of the legal profession.
Legal professionals interact and represent members of the public before the legal system regularly. In their interactions with the legal practitioners, members of the public must never have a sense of powerlessness, moreover when their rights are grossly violated. People must be encouraged to speak out against maladministration with the certainty that their complaints will be taken seriously.
There is no doubt that all of us take a dim view of legal practitioners who misrepresent their clients as we want a legal profession which commands consumer confidence. Distressingly, common problems of misrepresentations such as lawyers robbing clients of payouts from the Road Accident Fund, lawyers colluding with peers at the expense of their clients, lawyers being dishonest and incompetent, to name but a few, have characterized some of the legal firms in the country.
It is our hope that the Office of the Legal Service Ombuds, will work towards eliminating some of the challenges I mentioned above. We expect them to work independently and not sweep complaints under the carpet. So to Justice Desai and his team, we are confident that you will indeed put an end to a spectacle where lawyers protected each other when faced with scrutiny arising from conduct not consistent with high standards of the legal profession. We urge you to pursue complaints vigorously so that your responses can inspire confidence and provide solutions to our people.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission when outlining duties and responsibilities of lawyers say the following: Lawyers shall at all times maintain the honour and dignity of their profession as essential agents of the administration of justice. Lawyers, in protecting the rights of their clients and in promoting the cause of justice, shall seek to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law and shall at all times act freely and diligently in accordance with the law and recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession. Unquote
To our people all over the country, we want to say should you be a victim of unscrupulous lawyers, the Office of the ombud is there to assist you. It will address the systematic injustices within the legal profession, foster accountability and provide redress. Our people have a right to be treated with respect and integrity.
As former President Nelson Mandela said, “every citizen needs to be familiar with their obligations and duties. They must be able to claim the right to be treated justly, promptly and courteously, and to claim their due under the law. Unquote.
It is common cause that lawyers must exemplify highest form of professionalism and integrity. They must devote themselves to defending the rights of their clients and be worthy this noble profession.
Having said this ladies and gentlemen, I want to emphasize that most of our legal practitioners in the country have throughout the years conducted themselves faithfully. They continually apply themselves consistent with the expected professional decorum. These are lawyers who through their conduct, demonstrate mastery of the letter of the law and impact positively to the lives of our people. These are lawyers who embody excellence and passion of the law. We encourage young and emerging lawyers to emulate them and represent the interests of the people.
The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development is committed to work together with Justice Desai and provide resources which will ensure that his office is fully capacitated. The department continues to address all administrative process required to make the work of the office of the ombud succeed. The Director General has committed to address any challenges that may arise as the office of the ombud continues to roll out its services and we will hold him accountable in this regard.
As we said when Justice Desai was appointed, President Ramaphosa could not have appointed a more qualified, experienced and appropriate jurist than him. He understands the intricacies and challenges of both streams of the profession and we look forward to working with him and the entire profession in our quest to improve access to justice for our people.
In conclusion, the rule of law and constitutionalism are the cornerstones of our democracy. Legal professionals play a pivotal role in strengthening the rule of law, let us must work together to deepen democracy and make South Africa a great and prosperous nation.
I thank you!