Legal advice and assistance are often not accessible to the poor and marginalised communities of the greater Boland area, leaving them vulnerable to human rights violations such as evictions, abuse and questionable debt-collection practices.
It's here that the Stellenbosch University (SU) Law Clinic steps in, not only to offer legal assistance to those who qualify, but also to empower the community through education in basic financial skills and consumer rights and responsibilities.
It is through the SU Law Clinic's involvement in significant legal impact matters, such as potentially precedent-setting discrimination litigation and tampon tax proposals, that it has become recognised as a leader in the various fields in which it operates.
In acknowledgement of this, the SU Law Clinic has been awarded the Achievement Award at the 2018 African Legal Awards. The award recognises exceptional achievement within Africa's legal community. The Law Clinic is the first recipient of this award.
The event, hosted by Legal Week and the Corporate Counsel Association of South Africa, took place at The Wanderers Club in Johannesburg on Friday 7 September 2018.
“The recognition by the Corporate Counsel Association of South Africa of our achievements should serve to motivate those individuals and firms who share our objectives where we, as members of the African legal fraternity, appreciate and endorse the importance of the law being accessible to everyone. It also greatly assists us in our continuous quest to bring our vision into reality, and for this we are exceptionally grateful," said Dr Theo Broodryk, manager of the Law Clinic in his acceptance speech.
The Law Clinic operates as a fully-fledged attorneys' office with a walk-in legal service, delivering legal services to the poor and marginalised.
Assistance is offered for a wide variety of civil matters such as family law, debt relief and divorce matters, with a specialised focus on farm evictions, currently one of the most important legal issues in the Boland region. Evictions and consequent homelessness are a real threat to the human rights of farm labourers and their children, as they become outcasts with little hope of finding homes and protecting their family life.
Between January and August 2018, 1 397 people accessed the Law Clinic. Of these, 626 were existing clients. Of the 771 new clients, 468 qualified for legal aid.
The Clinic nurtures a culture of civil responsibility, conducting workshops on evictions, debt relief and family violence.
Landmark initiatives in which the Law Clinic has been involved during 2018 include the following:
- A submission to the National Treasury on extending the list of zero-rated VAT items to include female sanitary products. The lack of access to feminine hygiene products, due to the high prices of these products, which are considered ‘luxury’ items, is an enormous problem that confronts poor, vulnerable and marginalised women and girls in South Africa.
- A submission to the Law Society of South Africa to increase the monetary jurisdiction of small claims courts in an effort to make these courts more accessible and affordable to all.
- The institution of legal proceedings, in partnership with Summit and 10 other applicants, against 49 respondents in the Western Cape High Court to seek judicial intervention in respect of certain debt-collection practices that allow creditors and collection agents to add costs, including legal fees, to debtors’ accounts both before and after judgement.
- Representation of Hendri Herbst, South African Paralympic swimmer, in a potentially ground-breaking unfair-discrimination case when he was refused entry into a restaurant because his guide dog accompanied him. It is hoped that this case will highlight discrimination against people with disabilities, in particular against those who do not have access to resources and who would not be able to afford to take legal action.
“It is important for us as a clinic not simply to litigate, but to in any way possible, through litigation or otherwise, achieve the purpose of ensuring systemic legal reform to the benefit of poor and vulnerable individuals,” said Broodryk.
The Law Clinic also presents training workshops for the local communities and community leaders that focus on the basic rights of individuals and raise awareness of the accessibility of the Law Clinic.
“The Law Clinic is perfectly placed to make a difference by engaging in impact litigation. When we do so, especially if we do it successfully, there is usually a tangible difference afterwards in terms of the number of clients and professionals who seek our advice and assistance. It also allows us to do training on the result of the successful litigation to ensure that the impact filters into the community and is not just of academic importance,” said Broodryk.
The Law Clinic provides training for final-year law students and candidate attorneys in the practical application of the law. Under supervision of an attorney, the students consult with clients and provide legal advice.
A key initiative undertaken by the Law Clinic is the Financial Literacy programme. This is an interdisciplinary programme run in conjunction with the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences in which students are given the skills to provide training to local schools and farms on financial literacy topics such as budgeting, the National Credit Act and the Consumer Protection Act. This empowers members of the community with the necessary information and skills to respond to and/or manage issues such as financial planning, debt management, consumer rights and eviction procedures and, where legal intervention is required, to attend the Law Clinic for legal advice.
The Law Clinic has also established an exciting research partnership in clinical legal education with Coventry University in England, which makes use of double robotics technology to conduct legal education. Students from this education programme receive training; engage in consultations, interviews and tribunals; and generally work with students, staff and clients in Coventry. Using essentially what is a ‘big iPad on wheels’, they can remotely control movement and interact with staff at a remote location.
The Law Clinic website provides more information regarding services offered, legal resources and even an online means test to determine whether an individual qualifies for legal assistance.