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Poor In South Africa Get Their Day In Court - 2003-05-09

A lot has changed in South Africa since the end of apartheid. For example, since the country transformed itself into a democratic society in 1994, much has been done to rebuild its judicial system. As a result, the poor are now more likely to have legal representation and receive a fair trial.

Good legal aid costs money, too much money for many developing countries. For example, it’s estimated Britain spends more than thirty US dollars per person on legal aid. The United States spends just over two dollars per person. While the US figure may not sound like a lot, compare it to South Africa, where spending on legal aid is only 50 cents - or half a dollar - per person – or Nigeria, where it’s as low as two cents per person.

One of those working to help the poor receive better legal representation in South Africa is David McQuoid-Mason (Mc-QUID-MAY-son), professor of procedural and clinical law at the University of Natal.

He says, "In a democratic country, where you have the rule of law and due process, you have to have ordinary people feel confident in the court structures. And feel confidant that if – particularly in situations where they happened to be accused of crimes – that they will obtain a fair trial. They will have their day in court."

Professor McQuoid-Mason says South Africa’s constitution contains a provision for legal representation. He says, “In cases where a substantial injustice would result if a person accused of a crime was not provided with the services of a lawyer,” the state must provide one.

Since money for attorneys was in short supply, South Africa tapped another resource.

He says, "Law graduates in our country, like their British counterparts, have to do an apprenticeship once they complete their law degree. And we worked out a system, in agreement with the law societies, which were subsequently enacted into legislation, which allowed law graduates instead of serving an apprenticeship with private law firms, that they would be able to work for a public interest law firm or to work in a public defender office funded by the legal aid board."

The change in the number of cases being filed with the South African Legal Aid Board was dramatic.

"Our legal aid board has been in existence since 1971," he says. "Between 1971 and 1994, it dealt with something like 500-thousand cases. In the short period between 1994 and about 1999, it dealt with another half million cases. So half of all the cases that have been dealt with by the legal aid board have occurred since 1994."

The University of Natal law professor says, “For countries with limited resources, a holistic approach” to legal aid is needed. This includes “government, non-governmental organizations, university law clinics and private lawyers.”

He says South Africa has increased funding of legal aid “fourfold since the first democratic elections in 1994.” It now spends about 400-million rand or nearly 56-million US dollars a year.

But Professor McQuoid-Mason says while South Africa is moving in the right direction, more needs to be done, such as in the area of civil litigation. He also says better methods are needed to investigate crimes.

He says, "What I’m involved in is training people involved in the criminal justice system, such as police officers, prosecutors, district medical officers and so on – and my particular interest is in crimes against women and children. And we need to try and develop an ethos of proper forensic investigation rather than the old system that existed of sort of beating the hell out of the prisoners, getting a confession and then going to court with a confession."

He says even during the apartheid era, the courts were deemed important by those opposed to the white-ruled government. He says they used the courts to fight the political system from within. He says this even included the liberation forces.

But Professor McQuoid-Mason says since 1994, South Africa has worked hard to ensure people get a fair hearing in court.