President Zuma has signed into law the legal practice bill, the presidency said on Tuesday.
“This brings to fruition many years of discussions, negotiations and even concessions that began in the time of the late Dullah Omar, democratic South Africa’s first minister of justice,” spokesperson Mac Maharaj said in a statement.
“While the time taken to promote and enact this historical statute might seem overly long, the time taken has been well spent.”
The lengthy deliberations during the bill’s passage through Parliament ensured that its many provisions had been thoroughly considered.
This was aimed at ensuring a legal profession that was not only transformed, but also independent, and promoted the values underpinning the Constitution and upholding the rule of law.
“The transformation of the legal profession, like the transformation of the judiciary and our court system, is crucial for our young constitutional democracy,” Maharaj said.
“Transformation of the legal profession is a constitutional imperative. The legal profession constitutes part of the judicial machinery that provides services aimed at promoting access to justice.”
As a result of the bill, all lawyers, being advocates and attorneys, would for the first time fall under a single regulatory body, the SA Legal Practice Council.
The council would be assisted by provincial councils in its daily operations.
“This Council will consist mostly of legal practitioners but also of other important role players whose expertise and experience will enhance the objects of this body,” Maharaj said.
“While there is a single regulatory body, the Legal Practice Act allows for advocates and attorneys to continue in their respective areas of specialisation.”
The council, when carrying out its regulatory functions, would bear in mind and recognise the differences and similarities between attorneys and advocates where appropriate.
“Legal practitioners, being officers of the courts, will continue to be admitted as such by the courts and the courts will continue to remove them from practice should this be necessary,” said Maharaj.
“The council will also play a crucial role in the professional conduct of legal practitioners and develop a single code of conduct that applies to all lawyers.”
One important feature of the bill would see disciplinary bodies that adjudicated on cases of alleged misconduct being open and transparent.
Beyond consisting of lawyers, they would also consist of lay persons.
Another important feature would see a legal services ombudsman established.
The ombud’s mandate would be to protect and promote the public interest relating to the rendering of legal services, and ensure fair, efficient and effective investigation of alleged misconduct complaints against legal practitioners.
The bill’s full implementation would only take place after the National Forum on the Legal Profession had completed its mandate, for which a period of three years had been given.
“The mandate of this Forum is to put systems and procedures in place for the full implementation of the legislation,” Maharaj said.
“It is trusted that the deliberations of the Forum will facilitate consensus on the remaining issues that are still required to be dealt with as set out in the Act.”