The wheels of justice could grind to a halt countrywide if a brewing national strike at Legal Aid SA is not averted, and workers’ grievances regarding a lack of security at their offices, debilitating workloads and bullying are not addressed.
Following years of fruitless engagements with management, aggrieved workers – including lawyers and support staff – fired the first salvo last year when they obtained a strike certificate from the Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).
As part of the picketing rules agreed upon with the employer building up to a full-blown strike, workers will today hold demonstrations at the public legal agency’s Braamfontein offices.
The agency yesterday confirmed that chief executive officer Vidhu Vedalankar will accept a memorandum of grievances from the workers, with timeframes for a response.
Legal Aid SA provides legal services in criminal and civil matters for those earning between below R8,000, and receives funding from parliament. The agency has 64 local offices, six provincial offices, and one national office.
According to its 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.
Michael Motaung, one of the agency’s lawyers at the forefront of the action, said with 80% of accused in all cases before courts defended by the agency, no court will operate during the strike.
He said it was time for action.
People the lawyers have represented who lost could not just walk into their offices and attack them to vent their anger.
“Our lives are at risk and when we complain we are told people are queuing for our jobs,” Motaung said. “In some local offices like Johannesburg Central and Krugersdorp there is no security at all.”
The crippling workload compromises quality at the expense of the accused, he said.
Motaung said it was common for a single lawyer to handle five trials a day. “Quality gets compromised and we are talking people’s rights to freedom and justice.”
Their life insurer has also been changed and their benefits cut without consultation.
Another employee leader, Vhambe Muregu, said they will issue the agency with a strike notice if they fail to address their grievances.
“The next step will then be a full-blown strike. Management tried to limit the looming action to Gauteng because the certificate was applied for in Gauteng, but failed. The action is nationwide,” he said.
The agency issued a statement yesterday, saying management has been engaging with the Concerned Employees Group representatives for a number of months. Chief operating officer Jerry Makokoane said these issues had been thoroughly ventilated at the CCMA.
“Legal Aid SA employees understand their professional duty and are urged to continue to uphold same in exercising their right to demonstrate peacefully,” he said.