The legal fraternity in the Mthatha area, in the Eastern Cape, is feeling the pinch of the COVID-19 lockdown. A number of attorneys say they are on the verge of being kicked out of their rented premises due to non-payment by the Office of the State Attorney. They say the office is delaying their payments and are now calling for government’s intervention in fast-tracking the payment process.

The affected attorneys say the issue of non-payment is not new. Even before the lockdown, the attorneys have been experiencing this problem. Last year they took to the streets, raising their plight to the Justice Department. The deputy chairperson of the Transkei Attorneys Association, Sinawo Makangela, says this issue of non-payment is demoralising, especially to new attorneys who are now resorting to changing jobs.

“We are just in the dark as the members of the profession. We do not know what seems to be an issue because from where the authorities are, starting from the DG’s office, they do have our memorandum which is talking about the issues of payment, that the invoices must be paid within 30 days. So their response then, when we submitted the memorandum was that they will put systems in place to respond to that. Nothing has been happening ever since then. Our members have got the invoices that date back from 2018/2019. It gives them a hard time running their practices and it affects everyone in the office. Some of them have decided to close down their offices.”

The lawyers say they would go on for almost eight months to a year without payment. Makangela also decried the issue of sidelining female attorneys in the profession, mostly dominated by men. A fellow colleague, Advocate Nontle Cokoto, has described the situation they face as disheartening.

“The situation at the moment is very bad, very sad. Currently, as I am talking to you there’s no work from the government. In fact, there is but, it’s a minimum of it. Personally speaking, I have decided to actually leave the bar. I’m saying this because having made the decision to actually come and join the bar, it was a decision I voluntarily took, understanding all the suffering and the hardship that I will have to go through, had to undergo the training by the privilege and on the training you don’t get paid but you always have the hope that ultimately it will pay well, you will actually bear fruit out of that. And I’m telling you now, up to today there has been absolutely nothing that we benefitted from the government.”

The office of the Solicitor General says the last time they were made aware of the plight of Mthatha-based lawyers when a memorandum was handed to it in April last year about the non-payment of invoices.

The spokesperson for the Department of Justice Crispin Phiri says there are systems that were put in place to address this situation. He has also advised the affected attorneys to direct their queries to the Director of Operations.