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E-tolls legal bill: you’ll pay

 The government has spent as much as the cost of 14 RDP houses on one day in court defending the e-tolling system.

According to The Star’s calculations, between the SA National Roads Agency Ltd (Sanral), the Treasury and the Department of Transport, at least R750 000 was spent in the Pretoria High Court.

Adding to the billions of rand taxpayers will land up paying, one way or another, for the upgrade of Gauteng's freeways, will also come this multimillion-rand legal bill. Picture: Paballo Thekiso. Credit: INSLA

It costs around R55 000 to build an RDP house.

Adding to the billions of rand taxpayers will land up paying, one way or another, for the upgrade of Gauteng’s freeways, will also come this multimillion-rand legal bill.

E-tolling is costing taxpayers multiple billions of rand. On top of the R20 billion road upgrade bill, there is the R2bn to build the toll system and – according to answers before parliament – Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele said that over the next two years, operating the tolls would cost R2.5bn, with a further R1bn for road maintenance.

On Sunday, Wayne Duvenage, chairman of the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, revealed that the use of two senior counsel, four days in court and countless hours preparing for the court case to interdict e-tolling had cost the alliance R2m.

While this was all the money the alliance had poured into the kitty for the legal case, it is probably small change compared to the massive legal response the government threw at them to try to keep e-tolling on track.

When Judge Bill Prinsloo granted an urgent interdict against the launch of e-tolling in the Pretoria High Court on Saturday, there were no shortage of legal minds who contributed to the case.

There were 19 advocates before the court, 10 of them senior counsel. Two of these were from the alliance.

Judge Prinsloo even mentioned in his judgment the amount of senior counsel he had in front of him, remarking on the high level of legal argument he had had to consider when making his decision.

The alliance’s senior counsel, Alistair Franklin and Alfred Cockrell, faced advocates from Sanral, the Treasury and the department of transport. The main face for Sanral was David Unterhalter, and there was Jeremy Gauntlett for the Treasury and Vincent Maleka for the Department of Transport, all of whom are considered top advocates.

Two senior counsel told The Star that the fees for all the advocates above would be around R40 000 a day in court. Unterhalter, they said, was rumoured to charge even more than that.

Each senior counsel would then have a senior attorney, who charges two-thirds of that figure – around R27 000 a day – and they would have a junior attorney each, also charging around R27 000 a day.

This would mean the state could have spent as much as R3m in legal fees for the four days in court.

“That is just in court. There was also weeks of preparation and research. This was a complicated case. The fees would have been significant,” said one senior counsel, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

There were so many legal minds that on the first court day, the advocates, in all their black-cloaked glory, had to queue at the door of the court to make their way to the judge’s chambers.

“We used everything we had,” said Duvenage of the R2m spent.

He is certain the government spent far more on the case.

“This cost the taxpayer a lot of money,” he said.

If a full review on e-tolling now goes to court, it could take months and even years to be heard, potentially adding millions more to taxpayers’ debt, which will include the R20bn for the upgrade of the road.

Sanral and the Department of Transport would make no further comment on the case, other than saying they were studying the ruling and would decide on their next course of action.

The DA’s Jack Bloom believes the best thing for the government to do was to forget about e-tolling and move on to another funding method.

“The e-tolls are effectively dead and the court interdict gives government a face-saving way to cancel its contract with the Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) Consortium,” said Bloom. “Damages will have to be paid in cancelling this contract, but it will still be cheaper than carrying on with a toll collection system that is as expensive as the roads that have been built.”

Meanwhile, as the alliance celebrated its victory, criminals jumped on people’s support for the alliance to scam them. Twitter was abuzz on Sunday with people who said they had been asked to donate money to the alliance’s forthcoming legal battle.

Howard Dembovsky, from the Justice Project SA, said one man told him he had received an e-mail asking him to donate R15 in an sms to the alliance for its legal fees.

“He sent the money,” said Dembovsky. “Unfortunately, we live in a country with a lot of opportunists.”

Duvenage said: “We will be launching a campaign to raise money for the court case, but not yet. We will launch this on our website and through the media. Until then, people must please be careful.” - The Star

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