Continued enrolment as a legal practitioner in South Africa is now contingent upon the achievement of the minimum period of recurring community service hours in any given calendar year.
On 11 August 2023, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development published amendments to the regulations made under section 94(1) of the Legal Practice Act, 2014, with the aim of broadening access to justice, and enhancing the protection afforded by section 34 of the Constitution which states that: “everyone has the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by the application of law, decided in a fair public hearing before a court, or where appropriate, in another independent and impartial tribunal or forum.”
In terms of the regulations, legal practitioners, including practising and candidate legal practitioners, are required to complete a minimum number of community service hours – including the provision of pro bono services – to maintain their good standing with the Legal Practice Council (LPC). In every calendar year, starting 01 January 2024, practising legal practitioners are required to perform a minimum of 40 community service hours, whilst candidate legal practitioners are required to perform a minimum of 8 community service hours.
For legal practitioners, community service is defined as:
- the provision of free legal services by a practising legal practitioner through the structures contemplated in section 29(2) of the Act (see below);
- the provision of legal services at no fee or at a reduced fee to individuals, groups or organisations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights or to charitable, religious, civic, community and educational organisations in matters, in furtherance of the organisational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would cause hardship;
- pro bono services – where there is no expectation of fee or compensation from the client;
- in forma pauperis instructions from a registrar of a division of the High Court;
- time spent on providing supervision to a candidate legal practitioner who is rendering community service; and
- any lectures or training presented to candidate legal practitioners, at no charge and with no remuneration.
According to the regulations, all persons on the practising roll of legal practitioners, including those who intend to renew their registration annually, are required to perform community service. Therefore, there is no grandfather clause which exempts legal practitioners who were admitted before the regulations were published from performing community service, nor any age limit.
For candidate legal practitioners, community service is defined as:
- the provision of free legal services by a candidate legal practitioner through structures as contemplated in section 29(2) of the Act;
- the provision of legal services at no fee or at a reduced fee to individuals, groups or organisations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties or public rights or to charitable, religious, civic, community and educational organisations in matters, in furtherance of the organisational purposes, where the payment of standard legal fees would cause hardship; and
- pro bono services.
Candidate legal practitioners are prohibited from performing community service independently and must always be supervised by their principal or a supervisor. The hours spent by the principal or supervisor are also regarded as community service in terms of the regulations.
The structures contemplated in section 29(2) of the Act, in terms of which community service may be performed, are:
- service in the State, approved by the Minister, in consultation with the LPC;
- service at the South African Human Rights Commission;
- service, without any remuneration, as a judicial officer in the case of legal practitioners, including as a commissioner in the small claims courts;
- the provision of legal education and training on behalf of the LPC, or on behalf of an academic institution or non-governmental organisation; or
- any other service which the candidate legal practitioner or the legal practitioner may want to perform, with the approval of the Minister.
It is imperative for practising and candidate legal practitioners to complete and sign the requisite forms and submit them to the LPC for approval on an annual basis. Where community service by practising legal practitioners is concerned, these forms will also have to be signed by the client to whom the community service was rendered.
All community service hours performed in excess of what is required by the regulations will be carried over into the next calendar year.
South Africa’s history of socio-economic exclusion, and impediments to access to justice under apartheid, has had significant, adverse implications for the rights of indigent persons in our constitutional democracy. As Winston Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give,” and the commitment to improving access to justice for the poor should be regarded as both a moral and legal imperative by legal practitioners in South Africa.