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Cuts ‘compromising’Legal Aid services

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Services included providing legal representation in 426 617 criminal and civil matters, as well as legal advice to 305 239 people

File image: IOL

LEGAL Aid SA may be forced to retrench staff next year unless the government stops cutting its budget.

The organisation, which also services the Northern Cape, was delivering its annual performance report before the parliamentary portfolio committee on justice and correctional services when chief financial officer, Rebecca Hlabatau, said that recent budget cuts had led to some of line items being reduced.

“Telephone and faxes were reduced by R2.8 million, library by R1.1 million, short-term insurance by R1.3 million and advertising by R3.6 million. Budget cuts over the 2017/18 financial year to 2020/21 have reduced staff by 282 posts or 10.2%,” Hlabatau said.

The budget cuts for those specific years have resulted in legal aid service delivery capacity being reduced by 51 675 or 11% of matters. Coverage was reduced by 7% in district courts, from 86% to 79%, and 10% in regional courts, from 95% to 85%.

Legal Aid’s executive told the portfolio committee that it delivered professional legal services to nearly 732 000 people in the 2017/18 financial year.

Services included providing legal representation in 426 617 criminal and civil matters, as well as legal advice to 305 239 people.

Of the 426 617 legal representations, 371 202 (87%) were criminal matters and 55 415 (13%) civil matters.

The body provided services to 16 350 children – 10 141 were cases where children were in conflict with the law and 6 209 civil matters. Legal Aid said there was a 10.9% fall in new children’s criminal matters.

Chairperson Judge Dunstan Mlambo said: “We are being compromised in servicing the indigent due to budget cuts. Instead of not filling vacancies, we will be forced to retrench staff in 2019/20.

Legal Aid used 80% of its allocated budget to pay salaries and only 20% on operations. It used 99% of its allocated budget.

Chief executive Vidhu Vedalankar said: “The holding of vacancies impacts on service delivery – it reduces coverage at courts and matters will take longer to finalise, there will be a big backlog and some matters won’t be taken.”

She urged the committee to intervene and reject further budget cuts.

Northern Cape Legal Aid Justice Centre executive, Joseph Bosealetse, said yesterday that while the provincial office was aware of the budget cuts, there were no retrenchments planned for the Northern Cape as yet.