Over the past two years, developments have been in process to establish a Legal Service Ombudsman. Judge Desai was appointed to fulfil this role due to his reputation which prioritises fairness and dignity when applying the law. Section 47 of the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 now empowers Judge Desai to investigate complaints and alleged maladministration, within the ambit of the Act as well as actions which may affect the integrity of the legal profession.
There are indeed and unfortunately many occasions when legal professionals do not act in accordance with the ethical standards expected of them. The establishment of this office will attempt to better regulate the interaction with members of the public by legal professionals as well as the representation of such citizens. In terms of the principles of this office, it is noted that members of the public must never be left with a sense of powerlessness due to the dealings with their legal representative. This is a higher bar than simply stating that ordinary citizens’ rights should not be violated by their legal representatives. Legal professionals should thus be very aware and cognisant of the manner in which they communicate and/or engage with members of the public in their capacity as legal professionals.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission noted that legal professionals should at all times maintain the honour and dignity of their profession and act in accordance with their status as essential agents of the administration of justice. Upholding human rights should always be of concern to legal professionals and because of this, it is alarming that violations of exactly the human rights of members of the public by legal professionals do take place.
Arguably, even in their capacity as citizens, legal professionals should hold themselves to a high standard in their dealings with persons in order to encourage faith in the legal fraternity and to create the impression that persons will be taken seriously when they encounter a legal problem and report it.
One of the main problems to have arisen regarding the conduct of legal professionals in the recent past is the misappropriations of payouts from the Road Accident Fund, of which totals clients have not always been transparently informed. Other issues include collusion with colleagues, dishonesty and incompetence.
The office hopes that they will be able to eradicate some of the issues that have clouded the legal fraternity and made it seem less trustworthy to citizens. The office undertakes to work independently, without fear or favour. It is the hope of Minister of Justice, Mr Ronald Lamola, that Judge Desai and his team will be able to repair confidence in the legal profession where it has been damaged and for their office to provide concrete solutions to concerned citizens.
It does remain within the power of each and every legal professional out there to commit and when necessary, re-commit themselves to integrity and dignity when embarking on or growing in a legal career.
By Janneke Steyn, LL.B LL.M (Stell), Junior Associate Attorney, VR Law Incorporated
*If your rights have been violated by a legal professional in any way, you are invited to contact us today in order to discuss your problem and for us to assist you in the appropriate manner. We assure you that at VR Law we act in the best interests of our clients and with the consistent goal of excellence in all we do.