The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) accused the ministers of justice, health and police of grandstanding on Tuesday when they announced a nationwide investigation into state attorneys and private practitioners, accused of looting up to R80-billion from government through collusion.
“These three ministers go out and make huge claims without substantiation, without a shred of evidence,” said LSSA co-chairperson Mvuzo Notyesi in Johannesburg.
“No one has come up and actually suggested that there are attorneys who are involved in this broad scheme that is intended to loot funds from the state,” he continued.
The LSSA was responding to recent reports that state attorneys and private legal firms had colluded to defraud government of up to R80-billion, according to Justice and Correctional Affairs Minister Michael Masutha.
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is investigating the claims and last week Masutha held a press conference addressing the issues alongside Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and Police Minister Bheki Cele.
“Certainly, these allegations if they are left unattended they are harmful to the profession itself. They portray the profession as being complicit to some form of corruption,” said Notyesi.
“If it is suggested that the profession is involved in corruption or corrupt activities that has a negative impact on the public’s confidence in the profession,” he continued.
The LSSA admitted some attorneys are unprofessional and likely involved in corruption, but Notyesi said the ministers made “sweeping statements” about the legal fraternity while failing to provide evidence, lay complaints, or meet to discuss their concerns.
He said there are bodies that the ministers are party to where they could have raised their concerns.
“That did not happen. We feel strongly that this is nothing else than a grandstanding on the part of the ministers who seek to avoid the real issues,” he said.
“We cannot say for sure that all attorneys have acted properly and lawfully. There must be somewhere, somehow maybe one or two instances where there are acts of unprofessional conduct, but until such time where they have been reported to the regulatory body so that they can investigated, it is incorrect to state as fact that R80-billion has been stolen by the legal profession,” Nyotsi continued.
“They seem to use it as a political weapon for political expediency,” said Mfana Gwala, LSSA council member.
Masutha’s spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga denied the claims.
“None of the ministers who spoke at the press briefing ever cast aspersions on the legal profession in its entirety. They instead pointed out to very specific cases of wrongdoing by some, not all lawyers and other professionals,” he said.
LSSA leaders said it is unclear how government arrived at the R80-billion figure. According to the Sunday Times, Masutha estimated that amount may have been looted. Much of the alleged collusion is linked to malpractice claims against the health department. Since 2013, the health department has paid R57-billion in claims, but there are no estimates of how many of those claims may have been fraudulent.
Motsoaledi has long complained about lawyers filing malpractice claims. He has noted a number of cases of state lawyers deliberately derailing cases to ensure claimants would be paid.
The minister said R70-million was paid to a claimant for a botched circumcision in Eastern Cape, but no circumcision took place. In Limpopo, R25-million was paid to a patient with cerebral palsy. On investigation, it was revealed that the claim was fraudulent.
Nyotsi said he had personally inquired about the circumcision case and no complaints had been laid against the attorneys involved. He said four complaints had been opened in the Law Society of the Northern Provinces and one in the Cape Law Society on related issues.
Regional law associations can investigate attorneys after anyone with valid evidence lays a complaint. They can then suspend members and apply to court to have them struck from the roll. LSSA leaders emphasised on Tuesday that anyone with a valid complaint needs to come forward as they cannot investigate members without a complaint.
The Legal Practice Act is due to be enacted in November, which will see the regional legal associations collapsed into one national body. It allows for members of the public and media to attend disciplinary hearings.
Lawyers have also come under fire for facilitating and allegedly benefiting from State Capture. LSSA council member Anthony Millar said lawyers often write contracts but do not know how money might be looted from the state and what happens to it after the deal.
Millar said if a lawyer had knowledge about illegal activities, complaints must be laid with the regulatory body and the authorities.
“It’s a matter of bringing forward properly motivated complaints that can be investigated and seen through to the end,” he said.
“We are not here to defend anybody, but all that we stand to do is explain the very important constitutional role of the profession,” said Notyesi.
The LSSA supported investigations into corrupt lawyers but said allegations must come with evidence. They supported taking action against dodgy practitioners and said authorities should try to recover funds from any lawyers who knowingly benefited from the proceeds of crime.
The Law Society of the Northern Provinces got 33 attorneys struck from the roll in 2017 and the Cape Law Society had 11 struck from the roll, but the LSSA faced criticism on Tuesday about its handling of the cases against fugitive lawyer Ronald Bobroff.
With his implicated son Darren Bobroff, he fled for Australia after allegedly overcharging victims for claims against the Road Accident Fund. Notyesi defended how long it took to act against the pair and said that the LSSA is working with local and international authorities to hold them accountable.
“There is a process of investigation that must be followed. That process was done and immediately when the application was moved for his striking and all that Mr Bobroff escaped and left the country.” DM