Seeking justice for the poor – that is the mantra of the students, administrative staff and attorneys who tackle hundreds of cases at the UCT Law Clinic, which is a beacon of hope for those who cannot afford legal representation.
When the clinic’s third and fourth-year law students, who are guided by experienced attorneys employed by the clinic, consult with their clients they see first-hand the dire reality of South Africa’s great socio-economic divide between the haves and have-nots.
The UCT Law Clinic was born out of a worldwide student movement for such facilities in the 1970s, and was particularly relevant at the height of apartheid when the poor and destitute had even less of a voice than they do now.
For years, it was administered by the students themselves before a financial injection by the New York-based Ford Foundation brought the institution to greater prominence.
Forty years on and now with the full participation of faculty and other stakeholders, the clinic not only provides free services to poor communities, it also gives law students practical experience.
Clinic students and attorneys hold outreach programmes in various communities to alert people to the services they offer.
Two annual consultation periods – March through May, and July through September – are set aside to review cases which are either accepted or passed on.
Clinic director and supervising attorney, Varni Moodley, said one of the clinic’s great achievements was the way in which it changed the way students viewed the world while giving hope to the poor.
“Most of our clients require help with divorce procedures or housing issues in the communities. There are so many cases where clients do not have the money to evict people who have illegally settled on their properties. This is where we are able to step in and assist them,” Ms Moodley said.
“Overindebtedness is also a huge problem. Remember, that these are the poorest of the poor, so inevitably they are forced to turn to loan sharks just to get by.
“The problem is that the interest charged on these loans is massive, so the person is never out of debt. There are also cases where the debt is bought up by loan companies. Unfortunately, because people in these communities are not aware of their legal rights, they sign the required documentation and have to pay up each month. It’s very sad.”
Last year, the law clinic consulted with 436 people, taking on an astonishing 374 cases.
Students and attorneys have already sat down with 130 people this year.
Ms Moodley said it was hard work helping so many people, especially with the clinic’s meagre resources.
“At times, the students can become overwhelmed by what they have to deal with. There was one instance where a woman’s husband had shot their son, and she was desperate to get a divorce. For some, that kind of case is incredibly stressful, and they might signal an intention to go into corporate law instead. However, most students love the fact they can help people in this way. They also love the interaction with their supervising attorneys, as it prepares them for what it will be like to be a practising attorney.”
Aside from Ms Moodley, as a registered legal practice, the clinic employs five attorneys, Matilda Smith, Constance Theron, Allison Basson and Goksen Effendi, as well as candidate attorney Kidwell Ngonzo. Staff administrators Shamemah Abrahams and Glenrine Flowers also ensure operations run as smoothly as possible.
“The fact is we can only take cases as far as the regional court, which is why we are also extremely fortunate to be able to call on Cape Bar advocates Rhetta Marais, Sean Fergus and Fairouz Nagia-Luddy, who do pro bono work for us and are able to represent some clients in the high court,” said Ms Moodley.
* The UCT Law Clinic can be contacted on 021-650 3775 or email@example.com