Open justice

25 March 2015
A UCT mural designed by engineer Mike Merrifield and painted by keen young lawyers in the 1980s.
A UCT mural designed by engineer Mike Merrifield and painted by keen young lawyers in the 1980s.

Within UCT's law faculty there are various programmes and entities helping make knowledge of the law more publicly accessible. They range from repositories for written law, to clinics providing legal services to those who need it most.

SA's largest online law library

The Southern African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII), established in 2002, is the largest online law library; through its website, it offers free access to journals, judgments and legislation from Southern Africa.

Based in UCT's Democratic Governance and Rights Unit, SAFLII hopes to promote transparency, judicial accountability and the rule of law, by providing free and open access to South African legal information. It is part of the global Free Access to Law Movement (FALM), as well as the international network of legal information institutes (LII).

SAFLII receives over 120 000 unique visitors a month requesting over 2 million pages from its databases. The library currently hosts close to 100 000 documents across over 50 databases. It also links up to other LIIs in the region, making comparative law research that much easier online.

Africa's legal info incubator

AfricanLII is primarily an incubator of new legal information institutes (LIIs) and a facilitator for existing LIIs in Africa. African LII and other national LIIs also contribute to judicial education through a training programme in electronic legal research, which includes aspects of advanced legal research, citation and access to resources. The training is available to judges, their assistants, lawyers and legal academics.

It is also housed within the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit.

Law in your pocket

Pocket Law gives you access to legal materials via portable media such as flash or external hard drives. Content is updated every time the device is reconnected to the internet.

Developed by UCT's Democratic Governance and Rights Unit, Pocket Law is an answer to the difficulty legal practitioners face accessing the written law – considered by many to be the basic 'tool of the trade'.

A pilot project of this legal information research product is being rolled out to 25 judges of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). If the pilot is successful, the product will be launched more widely later this year. Plans are also afoot to market it to a wider audience of judges and legal professionals on the continent.

Free legal advice

Established in 1972 as the UCT Legal Clinic, the Law Clinic is a registered law practice that offers free legal advice and assistance on legal issues, ranging from divorce and custody disputes to evictions and wills.

The first university law clinic to be established in South Africa, UCT's Law Clinic started life as a student-run initiative giving legal advice to members of poor communities. Former student advisors include Justices Kate O'Regan (Constitutional Court) and Dennis Davis (Cape High Court).

Eligibility for the services on offer is determined by a means test, which is adjusted each year – and clients don't pay for any of the legal services. Instead, payment extends to the actual expenses involved in running your case, such as sheriff's fees. And there's always a qualified, experienced litigation attorney on hand to supervise and guide the law students.

The Law Clinic also provides training for candidate attorneys every year. A candidate attorney serves under a contract of articles, with the director of the Law Clinic as his or her principal. In this way the Law Clinic plays an important role in empowering newly qualified law students, and equipping them to enter the world of formal employment.

The Law Clinic takes on approximately 200 cases per year, impacting the lives of at least 500 people.

Supporting refugees and asylum seekers

Founded in 1998 as a division within the Law Clinic, the Refugee Rights Unit aims to provide legal support services to the growing number of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa.

The Refugee Rights Unit has since evolved into an independent unit with four main components. Its Refugee Law Clinic provides direct legal services to thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the Western Cape each year, while the unit conducts applied research in refugee law and related topics and teaches refugee law to undergraduate law and master's students in the Department of Public Law. It also undertakes a significant amount of targeted advocacy and training of government officials, the judiciary, civil society partners and refugee communities.

The Refugee Rights Unit is currently funded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

60 hours of community service

It is a compulsory requirement for the LLB degree that all law students complete a total of 60 hours of unremunerated community service during their degree.

The service must be legally orientated, and must directly benefit an underprivileged, disadvantaged or vulnerable group or person. Community service is offered through a range of service providers approved by the law faculty's Community Service Committee. These include organisations that are directly affiliated to the faculty, such as the Law Clinic and Refugee Rights Clinic, certain UCT student organisations such as LAWCO, and approved external service providers.

Students giving back

The Legal Welfare Community Organisation (LAWCO) is a UCT law student initiative established – in conjunction with SHAWCO Education – to provide basic legal education to disadvantaged schools and communities in the Cape Metropolitan area.

LAWCO's workshops are designed to educate high-school learners about their fundamental rights and how to enforce them. They hope not just to empower teens, but also to provide those hoping to practise law with a solid understanding of what their studies will entail.

Law students who volunteer for LAWCO gain practical legal experience while also becoming more familiar with the types of issues faced by the community surrounding the university. Time spent volunteering at LAWCO counts towards the compulsory pro bono hours every law student is expected to fulfil by the end of their degree.

Labour law

The Institute of Development and Labour Law was established in 1996 through the merging of the Development Law and Labour Units. The focus of the former was on land, housing, small and medium enterprises and other socioeconomic issues; while the latter, established in 1987, was aimed at capacity-building and applied research in the area of labour rights and labour market reform in emerging democracies. The institute incorporates the Labour and Enterprise Policy Research Group (LEP), which explores the interface between labour market regulations, trends in the labour market, and development.

Besides conducting research, the institute conducts education and training with regard to labour law and the labour market, hosts occasional workshops on topical issues, and publishes working papers and monographs. Last year, it made a submission to the Marikana Commission on organisational and collective bargaining rights in the platinum mining sector. The institute is also one of the convening organisations of the Annual Labour Law Conference, now in its 28th year.

Training judicial officers

The Centre for Law and Society (CLS) has trained over a thousand judicial officers and developed training materials on issues such as HIV, sexual offences, domestic violence, race and racism, and judicial ethics.

Established in 1993 at a time when courts were facing the challenge of transforming their structures and jurisprudence in line with constitutional and democratic values, CLS provides training and support to judicial officers by translating top research into accessible training materials and enlisting judicial officers as peer facilitators.

The participatory workshops organised by the centre are an important means for participant magistrates to share information and learn from each other, while also helping researchers tap into relevant issues in today's courts.

Action research for rural women

Based in the Centre for Law and Society since its inception in 2009, the Rural Women's Action Research Project (RWAR) has emerged as a critical and influential voice in debates about customary law and traditional leadership. It sits at the nexus between research, social engagement and litigation.

RWAR's overarching objective is to bolster rural people's ability to assert their rights and hold those in authority accountable. It works in three main areas: land rights, traditional governance, and the impact of mining on communities.

RWAR has been at the forefront of efforts to secure the land rights of people living in former Bantustans, playing a major role in the campaign against the controversial Traditional Courts Bill, which eventually lapsed in 2014.

Students for social justice

Launched by students in 2007 as a forum for law students to engage on central issues of legal and socioeconomic concern, Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ) aims to protect human rights, prevent discrimination and promote social justice and the rule of law. The society was formed in partnership with students of various universities in South Africa and strives to transform legal education and access to justice.

Partner universities include Fort Hare, KwaZulu-Natal and the North West. University branch committees were established by students, working closely with the national executive committee and SLSJ's other branches.

Over the years, membership has grown significantly, and has increased to include the Universities of Stellenbosch, Witwatersrand, Pietermaritzburg and the Free State.

Supporting SA's largest human rights law clinic

Under the Law Advice Programme, some thirty UCT law faculty members have volunteered to provide free advice to the Legal Resources Centre, South Africa's largest public interest and human rights law clinic.

Associate Professor Alistair Price established the programme in 2012; and to date, faculty members have advised on a variety of matters, including:

  • the obligations of media companies to respect the political free speech rights of their clients;
  • the obligations of South African prosecuting authorities to investigate alleged international crimes committed abroad when suspected perpetrators visit South Africa;
  • the international law implications of racially discriminatory expropriation of property;
  • the constitutional implications of the Traditional Affairs Bill; and
  • weaknesses in the enforcement mechanisms of the Consumer Protection Act.

There are hopes to extend the programme to include support to other public interest legal organisations.

Collated by Abigail Calata. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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