Weighing the scales of justice

Legal Aid South Africa lawyers Nondumiso Mkonto and Tatum Scullard.

Being a female criminal defence attorney is no easy feat: they not only face the challenges of a job frequently misunderstood by the public, they must do so in a patriarchal society still struggling to accept women in such a role.

Criminal defence lawyer Tatum Scullard started as a candidate attorney at Legal Aid South Africa in 2008.

Ms Scullard said her job, defending people accused of committing a crime, was often misunderstood by the public.

“People are quick to pass judgement, and we often find that most of the people who are arrested have not committed the said crimes,” she said.

Ms Scullard, from Oakglen, said Legal Aid South Africa attorneys played a vital role in ensuring justice for all, but the stigma attached to the job could be difficult to deal with.

She said lawyers had a bad reputation, but their profession was bound by a strict code of ethics.

“As women, we are expected to be ‘softer’ and get asked how we can defend criminals. But what if that person is truly innocent and what if it was your mother or aunt?”

Fellow attorney, Nondumiso Mkonto, said often they had to “disconnect” from cases, especially when the victim was female or when it came to rape cases.

“This is a challenge within ourself because, as women, we have that nurturing/sympathetic side.”

Ms Mkonto, from Kuils River, started as a candidate attorney at Legal Aid South Africa in 2013.

She said they had to dress in a certain way as they are often judged based on their appearance by clients.

Ms Mkonto said she had been at court in Bishop Lavis where someone had asked for legal aid but when the client had seen her, he had said, “No ways am I going to let her represent me, she is a woman, and she is young, I’ll rather speak for myself.”

Ms Mkonto said that because of clients’ assumptions she had had to put in hair extensions, wear heels and dress in a certain way.

Ms Scullard said she would never forget her first trial in 2008, when she had represented a man allegedly caught with tools used to break into cars.

She said her client had travelled from Soweto to Cape Town, where he had been robbed and had had to roam the streets without money.

He had been found with crushed spark-plug batteries – which can be used to break into cars.

Ms Scullard said the case had dragged on for four months, with her client being denied bail as he had had no fixed address. He was eventually acquitted.

“What he had to go through for those four months was horrific. Not everyone arrested deserves to be behind bars. Sometimes it has a lot to do with their socio-economic situation,” she said.

Ms Mkonto believes one of her first clients was wrongly convicted.

He had been accused of committing fraud – and it hadn’t helped him that he had appeared previously in the same court on similar charges.

Ms Mkonto said the case had shown her that there was only so much that she could do and that, ultimately, the decision lay with the presiding officer and the accused.

Ms Scullard knew from a young age she wanted to be a lawyer. She grew up at a time when the Station Strangler was stalking the Cape Flats: she had known one of the killer’s victims.

The sense of injustice, pushed her towards a career in the legal field.

However, she said, she had always believed she would be on the other side representing the victims of crime.

“Being on this side changed my perception,” she said.

Ms Mkonto was set for a life in the medical field – having chosen biology, science and maths in high school in order to apply for medicine. She applied for medicine at UCT, choosing law at UWC as her second option.

Her application for medicine was rejected but she was accepted for law at both institutions.

She went into law, hoping it would eventually springboard her into medicine, but it never did: law, it turned out, was the right fit for her.

“I did not choose this career, it chose me and I believe I was made for this,” she said.

She advised aspiring lawyers to stay up to date with the law because it changed all the time.

They should also be proactive, spend time in court and job shadow at a law firm to get a feel for the profession.

* For advice contact Legal Aid South Africa’s toll-free number on 0800 110 110.

* Mitchell’s Plain teacher and resident Norman Avzal Simons, also known as the “Station Strangler” was convicted in 1995 for the murder and kidnapping of Elroy van Rooy, 10. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.