The Legal Practice Bill being considered by Parliament could fall foul of South Africa’s obligations to the World Trade Organisation.
The bill would radically change the legal profession by, among other things, bringing attorneys and advocates under a single authority – the legal practice council. Controversially, it would have a majority of attorneys in its composition.
Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, pictured, wrote to the justice committee asking MPs to ensure that South Africa’s international reciprocal obligations, which allowed lawyers to practice in each others’ countries, were upheld.
Justice committee chairman Luwellyn Landers yesterday said justice and trade and industry officials would meet to review the matter and, if necessary, propose amendments to the bill.
At present there is nothing in the draft law which prohibits foreign lawyers from practicing in South Africa, but they are required first to register with the proposed legal practice council – a situation that could fall foul of World Trade Organisation obligations.
The committee also agreed to consider proposals for lawyers to declare their fees upfront in writing, as in Australia. High legal fees, and what some regard as the untransparent way of charging for legal representation, was one of the motivations behind the bill.
It has already been agreed by all parties that people should be able to approach advocates directly, without having to go through an attorney, as at present.
DA justice spokeswoman Dene Smuts yesterday welcomed the consideration of a fee disclosure clause. It would mean clients had the right to negotiate fees. Landers said the matter would be discussed further.
However, the bill – already in its fifth draft – has raised ire from opposition. There is concern that the minister’s powers – which would allow him to dissolve the legal practice council if he deemed it to be dysfunctional – were too wide. And they were unhappy about the structure of the council itself, which would be dominated by attorneys.
Smuts said the council amounted to “fusion by stealth” between the professions of advocates and attorneys.
Should the Bill become law, it will be phased in and a transitional legal practice council has two years to finalise rules and procedures. - The Cape Argus