UP Law Clinic keeps fighting the good fight during COVID-19 lockdown

Posted on August 04, 2020

The University of Pretoria Law Clinic (UPLC), Faculty of Law, has continued functioning amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in South Africa. In a report dated 16 July 2020, Director of UPLC Eddie Hanekom listed the accomplishments of the Law Clinic during the COVID-19 lockdown:

Development and implementation of an electronic UPLC file management system

During Lockdown level 5, the UP Law Clinic staff at both the Hatfield and Hammanskraal offices worked from home with the help of the electronic Law Clinic File Management System (LCFMS) that had been under development by Chief Attorney Lourens Grové since December 2019.

At the time, the conceptualising of the development was driven by the fourth industrial revolution. The first basic version of the system was rolled out during February 2020, exactly the right time to assist with business continuity for the UP Law Clinic when COVID-19 South Africa confirmed its first cases in early March 2020. The impact of the lockdown on the UP Law Clinic was therefore, to a large extent, mitigated as the staff could continue working on current files and cases from home. The LCFMS’ development continues.

Representations to include University Law Clinics in the Minister of Justice’s Directions

UPLC Director Hanekom, through representations to the Minister of Justice, in his capacity as President of the South African University Law Clinics Association (SAULCA), through the Law Society of South Africa and the Legal Practice Council, succeeded in convincing the Minister to include Directors and Managers of University Law Clinics in the definition as “head of institution”. Those Directors and Managers were thus authorised to issue permits to staff members for urgent and essential legal work.

As a result, all university law clinics could continue practicing during Levels 4 and 3 of the lockdown, assisting the indigent and those with a low income in our communities during the lockdown, regardless of the closure of universities.

Furthermore, resulting from Hanekom's representations to the Minister of Justice, “candidate legal practitioners” were also allowed to continue with their work and in particular to attend to court appearances. This concession by the Minister is of benefit the whole of the legal profession and not only to university law clinics.

Court appearances continued while working from home

During level 4 of the lockdown, appearances in all courts for urgent and essential matters continued. Hanekom and a junior attorney, Gabriela Oosthuizen, appeared in all courts on behalf of the nine attorneys and eleven candidate attorneys at the Hatfield office of the UPLC.  As the UPLC was not allowed to practice from the UP Law Clinic premises, staff members had to work from home. Consultations with clients took place at the various courts where the cases were set down.

UPLC limited on-premises services reopened on 15 June 2020

A number of attempts were made to obtain approval of a plan for reopening of the UPLC by the UP Management. A risk assessment was done, standard operation procedures were put in place, a “COVID-19 Plan and Protocol” was compiled, staff were trained on-premises and personal protective equipment was sourced and distributed to all staff. Eventually, after a rigorous inspection of both premises, health and safety plan and protocols were finally approved by the UP Occupational Health and Safety unit.   

Staff started to work on premises on a weekly rotation in two separate groups from Monday, 15 June 2020, until Friday, 26 June 2020, consulting only with current clients. One group of staff worked at the office under the supervision of Piet Breedt, Grové and Hanekom, while the other group worked from home.  At the Hammanskraal office the on-premises rotation also continued under the supervision of attorney Sophi Diale.

Court appearances continues: Intermittent Court closures

Although the UPLC continues with court appearances, it remains very difficult to manage as staff from the UPLC often arrive at court in the morning, only to find that the court is closed due to a COVID-19 infection. Closures are for periods of time ranging from a couple of days to more than a week. The Pretoria High Court, the Pretoria Magistrates’ Court, and the Temba Magistrates’ Court in Hammanskraal were all recently underwent temporary closures. The same applies to police stations, including the local Brooklyn and Garsfontein police stations.

Legal representation of accused in the Hatfield Criminal Court resumed

Representation of indigent members of the public at the Hatfield Community Court also resumed. The UPLC's task there is to represent accused in criminal cases who cannot afford to pay for representation by a private attorney or advocate. After negotiating with local officials of the Department of Justice and the Magistrate at the Hatfield Court, the implementation of some safety procedures for dealing with accused persons during the pandemic and lockdown, attorney Edna Pitsi continues with her duties there on a bi-weekly rotation. Happy Shabangu of the UPLC did an inspection of the court premises a few weeks ago, and as a result UP donated and installed perspex screens inside the Courtroom.

Limited consultations with new clients

From Monday, 29 June, to Friday, 10 July 2020, the UPLC started consulting with new clients on urgent and essential cases. The demand for legal assistance was and still is overwhelming, forcing the UPLC to refuse to assist in many cases which the courts would not deem urgent nor essential.

Consultations with new clients on a limited basis resumed again on Tuesday, 21 July 2020.

COVID-19 infections on premises effectively curtailed

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, two of the UPLC staff members tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The possibility of spreading the virus was effectively contained through our risk-mitigation and rotation plan. No other staff member on the premises was infected. The UPLC had to interrupt on-premises services to new members of the public for a while until 21 July 2020 for purposes of having the premises deep-cleaned, sanitised and disinfected.  Staff also had to complete a period of self-isolation.

The work for current clients is continuing from home through the LCFMS. A new on-premises rotation of staff started on 21 July 2020.

- Author UP Law Clinic

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