Legal Aid Board

20 March 2003

“The promotion and protection of human rights must apply to all without exception, and that includes the human rights of both the victims and the accused. It is for this reason that the Legal Aid Board has undertaken to institute litigation on issues that impact on the rights of vulnerable groups”, says Legal Aid Board chairperson Judge Dunstan Mlambo.

The Legal Aid Board has extended its services to ensure the protection of human rights by offering quality legal services in both criminal and civil cases.

The Board provides independent legal help to indigent South Africans. To achieve this, the Board has opened 44 justice centres throughout the country. These centres are the primary service delivery agents for legal aid, and the number will increase to 60 by the end of the year.

Improved delivery in remote areas in South Africa is also being targeted through a pilot project aimed at creating better integration and coordination between advice offices and the Board’s justice centres.

Launched jointly by the Board and the CS Mott Foundation, the aim is to optimise contact with civil society organisations, especially advice offices that have often acted as critical frontline sites for access to justice for the public.

Many of these advice offices were established in recent years by a variety of organisations, and the need to integrate and co-operate them with the primary legal aid provider is critical to the aim of providing justice for all.

Judge Mlambo says full respect of human rights for all means that the vulnerable in society, especially women and children, need to have the same protection under the law as any other members of society.

“We support government and rights organisations in protecting all human rights and ensuring that there is respect for these rights. Our work contributes to a better South Africa, where rights are respected, laws are valued and all citizens have confidence in the justice system.”

The areas in which the Legal Aid Board offers assistance include legal representation, access to justice, access to necessary information and to relevant resources. The Board also offers legal advice, accurate information and clear guidelines on the protection of human rights.

“Our immediate focus is the rural areas where people need such services. Our motivation behind this arises from the abuse women and children (from these areas) have suffered and continue to suffer”, Mlambo says.

“We strongly believe that it is our duty to protect the rights of all human beings, regardless of whom they are, and believe that financial, social or educational constraints should not deprive anyone of the right to justice.”

Techno-savvy turns the Board around
Three years ago, the Legal Aid Board was on the verge of bankruptcy. Handicapped by mismanagement, it faced a real threat of being closed down by Parliament. A decisive action plan was needed.

With support from the government, a strong interim management team was pulled together under the chairmanship of Judge Mohamed Navsa. CEO Ashley Ally, Finance and IT executive Kumaran Naidoo and HR expert Mpuseng Tlhabane formed a new triumvirate to address the weaknesses at the Board.

Today, the Board is back on its feet. It has recently received a clean audit report, its entire executive team is in place, and over 300 000 people from marginalised communities have access to justice each year via the Board’s justice centres.

According to Kumaran Naidoo, the clearance of backlogs, implementation of good control systems and techno-savvy have underpinned the turnaround at the Board.

“The Legal Aid Board made a strategic decision to provide its services through local offices, Legal Aid Board justice centres, in communities of need”, Naidoo explains. “Each centre is like a large legal firm offering a one-stop service for civil and criminal cases.

“Each centre serves between 10 and 20 courts, which means that the legal representatives spend most of their time in court. We needed to use technology to simplify and speed up processes to free our Justice Centre staff to spend their time effectively on service delivery.

“Operating in remote parts of South Africa, we needed an integrated, online, real-time software solution if we were to achieve this.”

To this end, new business control systems were put in place, followed by a new administrative and financial system, underlaid by a wide area network connecting all of the Board’s offices to each other.

“Our wide area network brings to the Legal Aid Board the ability to monitor standards and create uniform processes”, says Naidoo. “It also allows us to do this without centralising everything at head office, causing delays in decision making, or relying on similarly cumbersome processes.”

Each Justice Centre will eventually have its own Internet Cafe set up and will, via the wide area network, be able to track cases and precedents, monitor its budgets, and produce its reports.

“Ultimately, all of our business processes will occur online”, says Naidoo.

“When you’re sitting in an isolated community like Butterworth or Umtata, for example, and you are dealing with the cutting edge of justice as it faces impoverished communities, the ability to operate in real-time with the best resources available in South Africa really can mean the difference between success or failure in terms of our mandate of ‘Justice for all’.” reporter