Stellenbosch University Law Clinic senior attorney and lecturer Stephan van der Merwe graduated with a LLD this month after successfully defending his dissertation on debt collection – the first doctoral study of its kind in this field. This achievement is particularly noteworthy because he completed his doctorate within two years, while still in full-time employment.
It is another highlight in an already distinguished career. After completing a BComm in law at Stellenbosch University in 1996, he went on to complete an LLB in 1998 and an LLM (cum laude) in 2005 at the University.
“I was attracted to law because of its social justice element," explains Van der Merwe. “I was aware of the fact that there are people who are less fortunate, and that I was in a position to study and use the opportunities I have to assist people."
As a result, he joined the Law Clinic in 2001, a year after he was admitted as an attorney. “I jumped at the chance because I realised that it presented me with the opportunity to live out my passion." The subject of his doctorate, not surprisingly, grew out of his work at the Law Clinic.
Many workers approached him early on in his career about court judgements and the emolument attachment orders issued against them after they were granted loans. “When they came to see me, they had repaid their loans four times already, but deductions were still being made against their wages. I contacted the creditors, and it became obvious that there was exploitation."
Van der Merwe dealt with literally hundreds of cases over the next decade. In 2014, the Law Clinic brought the matter to the Western Cape High Court. After it ended up in the Constitutional Court, it resulted in amendments to the law, making it more difficult for unscrupulous creditors to exploit vulnerable people.
“There are still loopholes," he emphasises. “There's still a battle to be fought, and I'm involved in that." His doctorate – titled 'Developing a Procedural Framework for Advanced Debtor Protection: The Case of Emolument Attachment Orders' – is part of his ongoing efforts.
“Hopefully my research can bring about further legislative change," says Van der Merwe. “My doctorate proposes what we should do in terms of developing a further framework to stop debtor exploitation through emolument attachments."
He suggests that a new Act be promulgated to deal uniformly with emolument attachment orders. “The lack of a comprehensive Act means the current legislation is very fragmented, leaving vulnerable debtors open to abuse."
Van der Merwe estimates that billions of rands have been overdeducted from employees in South Africa over the last 30 to 40 years. “It won't be an easy process to stop predators, but it's a battle worth fighting," he believes.
In 2019, he became engaged in another major battle when the Law Clinic filed a class action on behalf of thousands of consumers in response to complaints about a number of websites related to the company Lifestyle Legal, which allegedly misleads consumers into entering agreements for unwanted services under the pretext of offering loans or free loan-finding services. The matter is now with the Constitutional Court.
In addition to his work as the senior supervising attorney at the Law Clinic, Van der Merwe also teaches law. Since 2003, he has been responsible for the Law Clinic's clinical legal education module and has also taught legal ethics and civil procedure in the Faculty of Law.
He completed a postgraduate diploma in Higher Education Teaching and Learning (cum laude) in 2017 and was awarded Stellenbosch University's Institutional Teaching Excellence Award in the “Scholarly Teacher" category in 2019.
And, along the way, he also somehow found time to serve on the executive of the South African University Law Clinic Association and participate in various national and international conferences and workshops. He is currently a member, too, of the International Association of Legal Ethics and a Fellow of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism, which is based at Georgia State University in the United States.
The range of Van der Merwe's activities clearly illustrates his total commitment to a legal career that advances the interests of society at large. His law doctorate is just the latest in a long line of achievements that bear testimony to this.