BusinessDay today contains an opinion from Jackie Dugard & Kate Tissington, researchers at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University”Why Cape legal twist looks like a demolition of justice for poor“.

They point out that “Currently, most law firms provide some degree of legal representation to people and organisations that cannot afford normal legal fees. Indeed, it is envisioned in the Legal Services Charter that in order to advance access to justice for the poor, private attorneys should all contribute to making justice more accessible to low-income and marginalised groups”.

They go on to state “Many law firms that provide such legal representation to poor people and associated organisations do so against the state. This is because, in most instances, the obligations to provide access to housing, water, healthcare, etc, lie with the state. At the same time, such law firms often also represent state institutions”.

However, it seems that the City Council of Cape Town terminated all their mandates to a large Cape-based law firm alleging that a conflict of interest situation had developed after the law firm undertook legal work at substantially reduced rates at the request of the South African Council of Churches.   The work involved legal action in the High Court against the City on behalf of backyard shack-dwellers.

The authors correctly conclude that “If the City of Cape Town’s termination relates to the Abahlali matter, this is a very worrying precedent. If reproduced across other law firms and in other municipalities, it would be a devastating blow to pro-poor litigation and would substantially undermine the government’s objective of securing access to justice for all”.