The office of retired Judge Siraj Desai, South Africa’s Legal Service Ombudsman appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in December 2020, is still not operational which has drawn serious concerns from the legal fraternity.
Members of the public and law societies have voiced concerns that the Department of Justice (DOJ) might not have properly planned Desai’s appointment, leaving complainants with urgent matters helpless.
An advocate of the High Court, Muhammed Abduroaf, said despite Desai only being appointed last year, the Ombudsman’s offices had to be functioning as of October 30, 2018, when the Legal Practice Council (LPC) came into effect. “It is a very important office which has now been vacant for almost three years.”
Abduroaf said if the office is not operational soon, then “the public will be denied their legislative recourse to lay complaints against legal practitioners as provided for through the office of the ombudsman. It would also mean that legal practitioners against whom the public is complaining would continue with their misconduct.”
Sarah Josephs from Bellville, Cape Town, said: “It has been four months now and we are still not able to lay our complaints … We are told that the offices will only be operational once Desai’s space is set up, but we do not know when.”
Richard Benson, from Rondebosch, Cape Town, said: “We cant hold matters of urgency this long. Is there no alternative for the public, in terms of officials or Desai looking into our matters while they are in the process of setting up his office space?
“I have tried the LPC and other law societies for many years and not much has been done to sort my matter. My legal aid was even cancelled in favour of a crooked attorney, among other matters.”
Tony Pillay, acting executive director for the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), also questioned why the office of the Ombud as per the Legal Practice Act had not been implemented. The LSSA’s president Mvuzo Notyesi said in a press statement that while Desai’s appointment was long overdue, it should have coincided when the LPC came into effect in October 2018.
“I urge the DOJ to ensure that the Ombud’s office is fully capacitated as soon as possible … The Ombud in terms of the Act is independent and only answerable to the Constitution and the law. Besides, other powers, the Ombud is competent to investigate any alleged act or omission that may affect the integrity and the independence of the legal profession and public perceptions in respect thereof,” he said.
The LPC’s communications manager Sthembiso Mnisi referred Independent Media to the DOJ, however, he did confirm that the LPC was working with the Department.
Mnisi last month said that the LPC had seen a significant increase in complaints of attorneys with more than 100 attorneys
being suspended and struck off the roll for various offences since the beginning of the year.
The spokesperson in the DOJ, Chrispin Phiri, who was speaking on behalf of Minister Ronald Lamola said the retired judge, the DOJ and the LPC were attending to all the administrative issues that need to be in place for the office to function effectively.
He said they would need to attend to referral protocols, primary location, and human resource matters among others.
“It is anticipated that these issues should be addressed before the new financial year begins.”
While concerns were also raised over Desai being paid during this time, Phiri said it was common cause that retired judges receive remuneration despite not being in active service.
Independent Media requested the ombudsman’s office’s contact details in which members of the public could make use of while in the process of setting up Desai’s office space, but they were not provided by Phiri.