Parliament - The government has spent almost R1 billion in legal fees in the past year defending a number of lawsuits against it.

This is according to a report tabled by the Department of Justice and Correctional Services to MPs last week.

In the report, the department told members of the justice and correctional services committee that the government was facing hundreds of civil claims.

It said that in the 2015/16 financial year, the state spent more than R700 million in legal fees defending lawsuits against various departments.

The Justice Department would not say how many departments were being sued, but said Health and the SAPS were the biggest clients.

It said the two departments were bearing a large part of the litigation, but did not give a breakdown of the amounts spent by the police and health department in legal fees.

The SAPS and Health Department have largely been sued for wrongful arrests and negligence.

In the first quarter of the 2016/17 financial year, the Department of Justice said the state has spent R211m in legal fees. It said a total of 389 litigation cases were finalised during the first quarter.

The total amount spent by departments defending lawsuits in 2015/16 and the first quarter of the current financial year amounted to R920m.

The government faces lawsuits every day, with the office of the state attorney battling to fight the cases.

A few years ago, then justice minister Jeff Radebe raised concern about the lack of briefs given to black advocates in the high courts by the state.

He said the government needed to increase the number of black advocates and lawyers to share the pie.

The government could not allow a small section of the legal profession to benefit from the state coffers.

They wanted the Office of the State Attorney to be more responsive in allocating briefs to black lawyers.

In the report to Parliament, the department seems to have corrected this when it indicated that out of the R700m that was paid in legal fees in 2015/16, the bulk of it - R565m - went to previously disadvantaged counsel.

For the first quarter of the current fiscal year, R165m of the R211m spent in legal fees went to previously disadvantaged individuals.

The Department of Justice said it wanted to fix the litigation area. “The department has as one of its priorities the turnaround of the State Attorney’s Office. This included putting systems in place to manage litigation costs, ensure effective management of state litigation and capacitating the State Attorney’s Office for improved operational effectiveness.”

Political Bureau