The wheels of justice are expected to grind to a halt today as Legal Aid SA lawyers hang up their gowns after deadlocking with the employer on several labour grievances, including heavy workload and safety.
Worker representatives say they have received assurances from their colleagues across the country that they will not attend to any matter until their grievances were resolved.
Michael Motaung, one of the representatives, said their hopeful impact was that Legal Aid lawyers would not attend to bail hearings or any other matter which, he said, would result in those relying on state lawyers languishing in custody.
“Matters that were set to be finalised will come to a standstill, scheduled trials will not get under way and first appearances will also be not heard without legal representatives. This is how we hope to pressure the employer to come to the table,” he said.
With 64 local offices, six provincial offices, and one national office, Legal Aid SA provides legal services in criminal and civil matters for those earning less than R8,000 a month. It receives funding from parliament.
According to its latest annual report, the vast majority of cases it handled were criminal cases at 371,202 (87%), compared to 55,794 (13%) in the previous financial year.
Mofokeng said with 80% of accused in all cases before courts defended by the agency, no court would operate during the strike. In May, the workers, including administration and support staff, picketed at the agency’s offices in Braamfontein, complaining that Legal Aid SA had failed to address their safety concerns, with people simply walking into their offices to attack them.
This was despite, according to the Legal Aid SA’s annual report, the costs of security at the agency increasing from R2,144,152 in 2017 to R2,258,171 last year.
They are also aggrieved by the cutting of benefits and a debilitating workload which, they said, compromised quality at the expense of the accused, who depend on Legal Aid lawyers for justice.
Motaung said on Friday they slapped the management with a 48-hour strike notice because none of these issues had been resolved and that there was not even an indication that there is a will for a resolution.
“Our plea for engagement and offers for solutions have been met with arrogance. We have been referred to as disgruntled workers when we raise serious issues. We are hopeful every worker will participate, though we have received reports of intimidation,” he said.
Legal Aid SA spokesperson Mfanafuthi Shabangu said they were “perplexed” by the notice because they had begun resolving the workers’ security concerns and that they had explained to the workers why they could not meet other demands.
He said they were currently conducting a security audit in all their offices to determine those that should be prioritised, saying this was an exercise that could not happen overnight as there are procurement guidelines that needed to be adhered to.
“With the issue of benefits, the organisation is grappling budgetary constraints like any other organisation in the current economic climate. Fortunately, we were able to pay bonuses last week but we are not in a different situation than we were in during May,” said Shabangu.
He said on top of their current financial woes, Treasury had issued them with a notice to prepare themselves for 5% budget cut next financial year, which would be increased to 6% for 2021 and 7% for 2022.
“These financial challenges will be with us for a long time and we are open to solutions from the workers,” Shabangu said.
Chrispin Phiri, justice and correctional services department spokesperson, said they had been notified of the strike but said their understanding was it was a matter between an employer and employee.
He said they would monitor the strike and hoped that the two parties would come to an agreement to avert disruption of legal services.