Law and disorder: Judge fumes over double-booking
A high court judge has threatened a Legal Aid lawyer with forfeiting part of his fee for double-booking a trial
Legal Aid SA has sustained a nasty bruise from a respected Western Cape High Court judge.
This month Judge Ashley Binns-Ward singled out a lawyer, instructed by the board, who delayed a murder trial because he was double-booked.
The judge slammed Legal Aid SA for the way in which it allocated work to lawyers. The board provides legal advice and representation to those who cannot afford it.
Binns-Ward said the delay of a trial prejudices the accused’s rights, costs the state money and obstructs the course of justice.The lawyer represented a murderer – who was on trial with four others – at the end of last year. But the lawyer asked for a postponement of the trial because he had another matter in the regional court in Cape Town.
Initially Binns-Ward refused but the Director of Public Prosecutions paid him a visit.
“I was persuaded that the disruption that would be caused in the pending proceedings in the regional court would be material if the matter before me in the high court were not postponed,” said Binns-Award in his judgment.
“I was led to believe that the dislocation of the matter in the regional court would be quite liable to lead to a failure of justice of grave proportions.”
The lawyer claimed that he anticipated the trial to end before the start of his regional court matter. The judge did not accept the lawyer’s excuse and instructed him to file an affidavit to apologise and explain “his role in the disruption of the trial” in his court.“Should there be a recurrence I shall in future be inclined to seriously consider exercising the court’s powers in terms of section 342A to make an order directing the offending legal practitioner to forfeit part of his or her fee and/or to pay the fees of any other legal practitioner that have been unnecessarily incurred in consequence of the dislocation,” said the judge.
“It also seems to me that the Legal Aid Board should be encouraged to take a more proactive role in its allocation of work. The board should be able to determine when the briefs that it gives to practitioners are likely to result in diary clashes.”
He ordered that his judgment be placed online and directed the chief registrar to send a copy to the head of the Cape Town office of Legal Aid SA.
But Cordelia Robertson, from the board’s Western Cape and Northern Cape executive, said at the time of accepting the regional court matter, the lawyer’s “diary was clear”.
“The high court session extended beyond the time set down; regrettable causing conflict in dates in the practitioner’s diary,’’ said Robertson.“Legal Aid South African will ensure that we engage with the practitioner to ensure that such a situation does not recur.”
According to its 2016/2017 annual report, the board served more than 767,000 people over that period. CEO Vidhu Vedalankar said they had spent 99% of their budget – more than R1,8-billion.
“Legal Aid SA meets a fundamental need in society by providing vulnerable and marginalised people with criminal and civil legal aid services as well as legal advice,” wrote Vedalankar.
“ We have achieved success through proper planning, which begins with our strategic plan and business plan followed by diligent execution in the various areas of our work by a dedicated team who subscribe to the vision, mission and values of our organisation.”