September 26, 2017

A reflection on pro bono

When I reflect on the pro bono work that my firm has done over the past few years, there is not a particular case that stands out. What stands out for me is the fresh perspective that the pro bono work has given me.

Pro bono work has revealed the poignant side of the law to me.

In my general, “man in the street” and family oriented civil practice, we deal mainly with commercial work for smaller businesses (and some larger companies), family law, trusts, wills and estates, conveyancing and general civil litigation.  Our paying clients are generally reasonably affluent and sophisticated.  The legal services that they need include transferring properties that they have bought or sold, estate planning to ensure that their wealth handled as tax-efficiently as possible and is distributed according to their wishes after they die, structuring their businesses correctly and ensuring that the contracts that they enter into cover their interests and do not expose them to unnecessary risk, making sure that they get a fair deal if they divorce, suing people who owe them money for whatever reason, defending actions against them when they dispute someone else’s assertion of rights against them, and so on.

In one way or another, the work we do for paying clients generally has something to do with their property or their wealth – moving it around, preserving it or managing it.  At some level, it is generally about money, and an abundance of money.  And that’s fine.

The problem is that dealing with paying clients only can give you a bit of tunnel-vision. You see things according to the scale of the paying clients.  R2,5M is a pretty average house price.  A R300,000.00 car is cheap.  R100,000.00 isn’t worth litigating over.  It is ridiculous that an estate as small as R4M should attract estate duty, when the R3,5M basic rebate has been around for more than 20 years.

Pro bono work has put things in perspective and it has been a humbling experience.

We had 3 presumption of death cases last year.  Seeing the pain of someone whose spouse or child disappeared without a trace years ago and now has to come to terms with the fact that he or she is most likely dead is heart breaking.  Helping them achieve a level of closure is far more satisfying than posting a R15,0000 transfer fee.

It is humbling to see how important it is to someone that their R200,000.00 two roomed house is dealt with in their will, because it represents their life’s work, when I know paying clients who will blow that same amount on a holiday.  Or risk it at the casino.

The vast majority of the people in our society are poor.  For them R100,000.00 is not a pittance to be written off because the costs and risk associated with litigating over it outweigh its value. For them R100,000.00 is vast and often unattainable wealth.   It is as important that the poor person’s estate that is worth thousands is as carefully planned as the paying client’s estate that is worth many millions.

The work provided by Pro.Bono.org introduces us to people whose financial interests are on a much smaller scale than our paying clients, but whose needs are not that much different and certainly no less important.

Pro bono work has reminded me why I wanted to become a lawyer – to help people at a personal level.

It is an honour and a privilege to serve our Pro bono.org clients.

The Law Society rules require that each attorney in South Africa who is in private practice must perform 24 hours of pro bono work per year. This must be performed for the benefit of clients, who qualify based on a means test. Individuals who earn less than R7 500 per month and own fixed assets worth less than R350 000 qualify for pro bono services.

In reality, most people who are referred to us for pro bono work are poverty-stricken.

Section 34 of our Constitution gives everyone the right to have any dispute resolved by the application of law decided in a fair hearing before a court or other tribunal. This right is meaningless if a person cannot have effective representation at the hearing.  Access to pro bono services gives thousands of people who otherwise would not be able to afford it access to justice.

Pro bono work is not limited to dispute resolution. A person whose estate consists of an RDP house worth R100 000 is just as concerned about making sure that his/her estate is dealt with properly and goes to his/her intended beneficiaries after death as a billionaire. If someone inherits the RDP house but cannot afford the transfer fees to transfer it into his/her name would have to abandon the inheritance.  Drafting wills, winding up estates and transferring property can all be done on a pro bono basis.

Pro bono work is a critical element in our legal framework, as it gives people access to legal services who would otherwise not be able to afford it.

Author: Robin Twaddle

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