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How accessible is free legal insurance?

Mar 19 2017 06:00
Angelique Ruzicka

Johannesburg - It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but a British man named Joshua Browder, who is studying at Stanford University in the UK, has developed a programme called DoNotPay – the world’s first robot lawyer – which gives free legal advice to refugees.

It’s basically a chatbot, which is a computer programme that engages with the client through texts or vocal commands, and uses Facebook Messenger to gather information about a case before dishing out advice and legal documents.

It was launched in March last year and thousands of people have also used the app to challenge parking tickets, which is what it was initially designed for.

While something this handy could be of great benefit to South Africans, as well as refugees who seek asylum here, we have nothing as sophisticated on offer yet.

If you are in trouble with the law and need an attorney or advocate, you could be in for a shock when you are handed the bill.

Sanja Bornman, an attorney for the Gender Equality Programme for Lawyers for Human Rights, says: “Legal fees differ widely and it all depends on the firm you are dealing with, but they can range from R400 to R3 000 an hour.

If you need an advocate to go to court, you could pay fees of up to R60 000 a day, depending on the seniority of the advocate. The more senior the attorney, the more you will have to pay.”

There are a couple of options to consider if you want to try to get free legal assistance and, in certain instances, representation.

Legal Aid: This is South Africa’s free legal assistance programme. It is funded by the state and is there for those who can’t afford legal representation.

Anyone can get help here, but the majority of Legal Aid’s resources go towards representation in criminal matters.

Bornman says: “This is a problem because there are many people who need legal help with everyday civil matters such as maintenance cases, divorce cases, domestic violence cases and evictions.

"In these instances, it is difficult to get representation from Legal Aid. It can most likely give you advice, but will not be able to represent you in court in civil cases.”

The Law Society: Every province in South Africa has a Law Society, which keeps track of how many admitted attorneys there are in that province. Every registered attorney must do a certain amount of pro bono work a year.

“If you cannot afford an attorney, you can approach your Law Society for pro bono assistance. They will match you with a private attorney who owes pro bono hours.

"However, you will only be eligible for this if you pass a means test, meaning that the pro bono programme is only there for people who earn below a certain threshold.

"This option is a good one, but, in many instances, there is a long waiting list and, if your matter is urgent, you could run into problems,” says Bornman.

Legal clinics at universities: The law clinic at the University of Cape Town (UCT), for example, has evolved from a student-run organisation into an accredited law firm operating within the UCT law faculty.

While you will be assisted by a student, there will always be a fully qualified, practising supervising attorney at hand.

UCT’s service is not entirely free, though, and not everyone can qualify for assistance.

Varni Moodley, director of the law clinic at UCT, says: “We assist clients who meet the means test [they must earn R5 500 or less a month] and whose matters fall within the capacity of the clinic.”

You may also have to pay for some things if you solicit the help of a university’s law clinic.

“Clients are asked to pay for disbursement costs such as sheriff fees, as well as transportation and postal costs. This is allowed according to the Cape Law Society’s rules.

"Without clients paying for disbursements, the clinic would be unsustainable. Clients who are unemployed are also assisted based upon available funding and a proper financial enquiry,” says Moodley.

Claim from your legal insurance: This is, of course, not a free service as you would have been paying a monthly premium, but if you need legal advice or representation, you can call your legal insurance provider’s call centre and find out if they can provide the service you need.

If you’re thinking of obtaining legal insurance, make sure you get the right cover.

Bornman says: “I think legal insurance providers are much the same as law firms in that there are good ones and bad ones. You need to be clear on what the terms and conditions are, and find out exactly what they offer before you buy these insurance products.

"Do your homework and make sure you understand the limits of what they can and will do for you.”

If all else fails, you’ll have to either represent yourself or hire an attorney or advocate. It’s possible to represent yourself if the case is a straightforward one.

For example, members of the public can go to the court and fill in a proforma summons if they are able to deal their own divorces, says Moodley.

However, if the person or company you are up against has legal representation, it’s probably best to get a legal expert on your side.

If you don’t, it could be like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

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