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Legal Aid denies guilty plea claims

Parliament - Legal Aid SA (Lasa) lawyers are not forcing their clients to plead guilty, officials from the organisation told Parliament's correctional services portfolio committee on Wednesday.

MPs summoned Lasa to Parliament to respond to criticism that inmates at various prisons around the country were not being allowed to consult with their lawyers, or were simply told to plead guilty.

Legal Aid SA (Lasa) lawyers are not forcing their clients to plead guilty, officials from the organisation told Parliament. Credit: INLSA

Lasa chairman Dunstan Mlambo said MPs should be aware that all issues raised were based on allegations made by prisoners, and that they were investigated.

“Allegations are made that they (remand detainees) have not seen a lawyer, but when you look at the consultation notes, you see that is not true,” Mlambo said.

He rejected notions of detainees being coerced by Lasa lawyers to tender guilty pleas.

“Some people say that they were forced to plead guilty, but you find that actually they pleaded not guilty in court and a trial took place.”

Lasa Gauteng regional operations executive Wilna Lambley backed Mlambo, saying the management of guilty pleas was a criticism often levelled at them.

“Candidate attorneys are not allowed to tender a guilty plea without a supervisor signing off on this.”

Lambley said guilty pleas were read into the court record. Judges and magistrates were therefore required to verify from the accused whether their pleas were in accordance with their instructions.

“We have often investigated allegations made by inmates that they have been forced to plead guilty. However it seems that from our investigations that this is actually not true.”

MPs were not impressed with responses, saying their visits to correctional services showed some of Lasa's commitments were not being met.

Committee chairman Vincent Smith asked the officials to explain allegations of bribery at Johannesburg prison.

“We hear that there's collusion between investigating officers and prosecuting authorities, that when I don't bribe the officer then I don't get my day in court,” Smith said.

Officials said they were not aware of these claims, but would investigate.

Mlambo added that courts scheduled appearances.

“Our practitioners are vigilant when the National Prosecuting Authority unnecessarily requests postponements, but at the end of the day we don't control the enrolling of matters.” - Sapa

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