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Court orders return of law firm files

Cape Town - The Western Cape High Court has ordered the return of files and computers seized in a raid on the offices of an immigration law firm.

It has also allowed for copies of the information to be made amid allegations that the sole attorney was operating a fraudulent work-permit scheme. In handing down his judgment on Monday, Judge Dennis Davis said that Craig Smith and Associates had shown that the right to privacy and dignity had been breached. The rights to client-attorney privilege had also been violated.

The offices of Craig Smith and Associates in central Cape Town were raided and officials seized 160 files, computers and laptops. Photo: Leon Muller. Credit: INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

But Judge Davis said he could not simply ignore the detailed allegations set out in an affidavit by an official of the Department of Home Affairs and “simply suggest that no court should take account thereof”.

He said that if the court were to make an order restoring the status quo and the allegations proved accurate, a “significant danger” could arise of the destruction of evidence.

It was clear to him, on the other hand, that Smith also needed to “vindicate his privacy” and restore the privileged nature of all documents and files as soon as possible. Judge Davis said that the court had to strike a balance, giving meaningful protection to the law firm while also exploring public interests in respect of crime control.

The firm’s offices were raided on July 18, allegedly late in the day. The firm then filed an urgent application for the return of the files and computers that were seized, raising allegations of abuse of power and the reading of privileged client files.

A lawyer acting for Home Affairs at a later stage raised in court allegations of fraud against Smith, who was accused of using his firm to sell work permits. Judge Davis further set out a process - along with time limits - stipulating how the files and computers had to be dealt with, allowing for copies to be made and kept by the court registrar in the interim. The law firm would have to make a list of all the files it considered to be subject to client-attorney privilege, which Home Affairs could challenge on an urgent basis in court if it wished.

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