The Justice and Correctional Services minister urged the office to ‘vigorously’ investigate complaints against legal practitioners, whose conduct is ‘unbecoming of the legal profession’.
SOUTH Africa now has a legal services ombud.
Members of the public who are unhappy with the services of a lawyer or have fallen victim to injustices within the legal profession, can now turn to this office for intervention.
It is headed by retired Judge Siraj Desai and will be operational from June 15. Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola this week launched this new office. He urged the office to “vigorously” investigate complaints against legal practitioners, whose conduct is “unbecoming of the legal profession”.
Speaking at the launch, Lamola said: “Legal professionals interact with and represent members of the public before the legal system regularly. In their interactions with legal practitioners, the public must never have a sense of powerlessness, moreover when their rights are grossly violated.”
The minister said people must be encouraged to speak out against maladministration with the certainty that their complaints would be taken seriously.
The legal ombud is aimed at creating an “accountable legal profession” for citizens.
According to Lamola, the ombud is to be tasked with “investigating complaints, alleged maladministration, and actions which may affect the integrity of the legal profession” within the ambit of the Legal Practice Act.
“We expect the ombud 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 the spectacle where lawyers protected each other when faced with scrutiny, arising from conduct not consistent with the high standards of the legal profession.”
Lamola also urged this office to pursue complaints vigorously, so that its responses can inspire confidence and provide solutions to the people.
The minister said although dishonesty was frowned upon in the legal fraternity, those seeking legal assistance were at times exposed to underhanded representatives.
“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 misrepresentation, 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 a few, have characterised some of the legal firms in the country,” Lamola said.
He assured people countrywide who fall victim to unscrupulous lawyers that the office of the ombud was there to assist them.
“Our people have a right to be treated with respect and integrity… Legal professionals play a pivotal role in strengthening the rule of law, let us (all) work together to deepen democracy and make South Africa a great and prosperous nation,” Lamola said.
The Legal Practice Council, which regulates the legal profession, welcomed the launch of the legal services ombud.
“This is yet another major development for the legal profession, following the ground-breaking enactment of the Legal Practice Act which came into effect in 2014, followed by the introduction of the Legal Practice Council in 2018.
“While we will continue our work as a regulatory structure for legal practitioners, members of the public will have an additional avenue to raise concerns if they are not in agreement with the outcome as given by the Legal Practice Council,” said Janine Myburgh, its chairperson.
She added that the office of the ombud would serve as an additional safety net for the public, as well as ensuring accountability for the legal profession.