Lawyers have warned that Legal Practice Council (LPC) plans to transform the profession with the draft legal sector code, which is up for discussion, contains clauses which could potentially cripple legal practices. Their biggest concern, notes a Sunday Tribune report, was the significantly increased number of pro bono hours lawyers must work annually, to be in good standing with the LPC.

Previously, legal practitioners were required to do 24 mandatory hours of pro bono service per annum, but the LPC’S draft code has now suggested 200 hours. Some lawyers complained that a typical month comprised around 22 working days, therefore, the LPC’s call to do free duty on three of those days was not practical or economically sustainable. They also raised the issue that pro bono stipulations were more taxing on smaller practices. The code suggests 200 compulsory hours for each attorney in law practices that generated annual revenue of between R3m and R15m. Practices that earn beyond R15m annually must do a collective 500 pro bono hours each year. Advocates in practices that are in the above R5m revenue category are expected to provide 150 hours.

The code looks harmless on the surface but is a hard-hitting piece of legislation aimed at gaining control of the legal fraternity, according to a partner in a Durban law firm. ‘The biggest problem is that legal practitioners are busy, under pressure and now under severe economic pressure, so many won’t read it thinking someone else will. Before you know it, it will become legislation,’ the attorney said. The source reportedly told the Sunday Tribune the direction on pro bono hours was ‘unreasonable’. ‘Apart from 200 hours being way too much, bigger firms are favoured over smaller ones. In my practice we have three attorneys. According to the code we have to do 200 hours each on an annual basis, which will amount to 600 hours for our practice,’ the attorney said. ‘But a bigger firm with annual revenue of more than R15m and has 10 legal practitioners for example, will only be required to do 500 hours.’ Attorney Anashya Jugmohan, an associate of law firm Pather and Pather Attorneys, said the sentiment behind the code was noble and she enjoyed doing pro bono work, but questioned how it would be regulated.

Although the Black Lawyers’ Association supports the overall transformation objective of the code, it singled out the contradiction between big and small firms regarding pro bono hours, notes the Sunday Tribune report. ‘Attorneys have been doing pro bono work for many years. We think 200 hours is too much, because running a law firm is very expensive. It should never exceed 50 hours,’ BLA president Mashudu Kutama is quoted as saying. Sthembiso Mnisi, the LPC’s communications manager, said the draft would be sent to the Department of Trade, Industry & Competition after consultation had been completed. Thereafter, practitioners will have another 60 days to comment once the DTIC publishes it, before gazetting. ‘Although there were some queries and disagreements with some of the content, the majority of the engagements and submissions have been constructive,’ said Mnisi.

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