SouthAfrica.info (Johannesburg)

Africa: Legal Aid South Africa Spreads Its Net

Unemployed people or those earning less than R5 500 a month will now have more information on how to access state-sponsored legal advice and representation when charged with a crime, facing an eviction, or needing legal help with family, contract or other matters.

This is according to newly appointed regional operations executive for Legal Aid South Africa in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, Mpho Kgabi, who took over the reins at the beginning of 2013.

"As the two provinces are mainly rural, my main goal is to bring justice centres closer to the communities, as most of the people lack information on legal representation," Kgabi told African Eye News Service.

"Our team will liaise with ward councillors and mostly traditional authorities to ensure expansion in rural areas by supplying pamphlets through poster distribution so everyone has access to information to understand the services we offer."

Kgabi said her work would include keeping her Justice Centre staff motivated to serve communities at all times.

She said her team would also liaise with the National Prosecuting Authority, the justice department, NGOs and community-based organisations.

For the poor and unemployed

She warned that chance takers who did not deserve legal aid would not be serviced.

"Legal aid is, in a nutshell, for the unemployed or persons earning R5 500 or less per month. Because we get tax money to spend on legal assistance for the poor, we must make sure the person applying for legal aid really qualifies.

"We ask a person who needs help to tell how much money he or she gets every month as wages or a salary, and what they own, like a car or house. We then give them a form to fill in all this information, and a Legal Aid official is always available to help with this," Kgabi said.

A person who gets any state grant or a state old pension automatically qualifies for legal aid, but he or she will be asked to show official documents that proves this.

"In criminal cases, children always get legal aid and do not have to do a Means Test, but in civil cases the family will have to meet the Means Test requirements," she said.

Types of cases handled

Kgabi said Legal Aid SA does not provide help for cases involving traffic fines, small offences where jail time is less than 3 months, claims for money owed that is less than R12 000, civil cases that do not have merits for success, as well as other cases excluded in the Legal Aid Guide.

The organisation has delivered 90% and more of its business plan annually and has received 10 consecutive unqualified audits from the Auditor-General.

Legal Aid SA has assisted more than 400 000 people per annum across South Africa.

"This high performance is a result of strong vision and strategic planning translated into clear business and implementation plans and effective monitoring, tracking of performance, commitment, dedication and passion for justice from the Legal Aid South Africa staff," said Kgabi.

She condemned legal practitioners who took advantage of individuals facing criminal charges and illegally charged them for Legal Aid services.

"We have a strong policy on dishonest behaviour. One practitioner was fired following a case brought to our attention in Middelburg in December 2011, after he illegally charged an individual," she said.

Justice centres, satellite centres

Kgabi said the organisation delivers the bulk of its services through nine Justice Centres and 16 satellite centres in Limpopo in areas such as Makhado, Modimolle, Thohoyandou, Polokwane and Tzaneen, and four in Mpumalanga, which are Ermelo, Middelburg, Mbombela and Emalahleni.

Legal Aid SA regional spokesman Isaac Dhludhlu said their organisational mandate in terms of the Bill of Rights was to protect, respect and defend the rights of children, women, the landless, evicted persons and farmworkers.

"All accused persons who face prison sentences of more than three months without the option of a fine and who cannot afford their own lawyers, prisoners who have to stay in jail until their case is heard, or those who are already in prison who wish to bring an appeal, will receive our assistance," said Dhludhlu.

 SANews.gov.za

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