Durban - The eThekwini Municipality has set aside R12.8 million to pay specialist lawyers, even though it has its own legal department with 28 legal advisers.

This comes as the city faces a barrage of civil lawsuits ranging from potholes to libel.

A report tabled before the finance and procurement committee meeting laid out plans to brief 22 law firms, costing more than R580 000 each.

The cases include litigation, conveyancing, commercial law, labour law and town planning.

The city’s legal bills have escalated from R600 000 in 2012 to R5.9 million last year after an increase in insurance claims against the municipality that were handed to private attorneys to resolve.

Municipal spokeswoman Tozi Mthethwa said the legal department’s work was divided into four main categories: litigation, labour law, legislative drafting and legal support.

For litigation, it initiated prosecutions for violations of by-laws and other legislation the city oversees.

“This is done mainly through the municipal court. We also initiate claims by the municipality and defend claims against it in the magistrate’s court,” she said.

This involved all claims up to R300 000, where the litigation was conducted by its own legal advisers.

“We also litigate in the high court, but none of the team members have a right of appearance in the high court. This is where we make use of a panel of attorneys,” she said.

Advocates were briefed to handle “complex matters” ranging from urgent applications to interdicts, claims of more than R300 000, evictions and others.

For labour matters, all disciplinary hearings and arbitrations were handled internally.

“The panel only gets involved when matters are at the labour court, or where there are no legal advisers available.

“This department also handles all the conflict-of-interest cases involving officials,” she said.

The legislative department was responsible for drafting by-laws, commenting on draft legislation and monitoring developments in local government.

“They also handle all legislative queries from the public and internally. We had engaged the services of an external consortium to handle the rationalisation of by-laws programme,” said Mthethwa, but that contract came to an end in November and the rest of the work was now being handled internally.

The legal support department was responsible for providing support to the administration and the executive.

Mthethwa said legal advisers in this department attended committee meetings to provide legal guidance.

“This department also handles some litigation matters, especially town planning appeals and rates recoveries,” she said.

The escalating legal fees are a sore point for opposition parties.

Minority Front councillor Patrick Pillay asked why the municipality did not have its own team of attorneys to specifically deal with the “big” cases.

“The city spends a lot on legal costs, which could be avoided if issues were not left to the last minute,” he said.

Pillay said with the awarding of these contracts, it appeared that the city was expecting legal problems.

IFP councillor Mdu Nkosi said they had complained about the capability of the city’s legal department for a long time.

Often the city appealed in cases which it lost again, which indicated that it was not being properly advised.

“The conditions-of-service debacle is a perfect example of this. The legal department is supposed to ensure that money in the city is spent well, but they still spend the most,” he said.

“We can’t have a team of law-yers that cannot even advise the city properly. We need capable people in this department.”

DA councillor Sharon Chetty said most of the money the municicipality used on consultants could be saved.

“If only the municipality employed the right person for the job. Currently, we have 22 attorneys at Shell House, who cannot represent the city in court. Answers on reasons for the lack of representation from the city have not been forthcoming.”

Chetty said the DA continuously called for a review of the legal department, but still had not seen the report.

“If the city manager is serious about stopping the continuous surge in legal fees, then the municipality needs to review the needs of the city and employ attorneys to represent us in court.”

DA councillor Tex Collins said: “What is our own legal department doing if the number of external consultants keeps increasing? We have long questioned the competency of our legal department.”

The department has eight litigation legal advisers, four labour advisers, seven legislative drafting advisers and nine legal support advisers.

The budget for the department in the last financial year was R17 546 680. It is used to pay legal fees and some claims brought against the municipality.

The Mercury