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SA advocate’s tussle with practice council highlights inefficiencies in legal sector

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Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency(ANA) – Advocate Malesela Teffo during the Senzo Meyiwa trial at the Pretoria high court.

By Zelna Jansen

Advocate Malesela Teffo has claimed he was unaware of an application by the Legal Practice Council of South Africa in the Pretoria High Court to have him struck off the advocates’ roll or suspended on August 4. Teffo said he was not aware of the application or the Legal Practice Council’s (LPC) investigations and hearings. He said there was a vendetta against him.

It’s common for Teffo to make controversial statements. He previously accused the Minister of Police Bheki Cele and President Cyril Ramaphosa of interfering in the Senzo Meyiwa murder case and harassing him. Given the mishaps in the investigation leading up to the trial, it seemed a plausible theory that many believed, and some still do. However, the accusations have not been proven and are baseless. The sitting judge in the Meyiwa murder trial, Judge Tshifhiwa Maumela, was accused of “witchcraft” by Teffo.

The timing of the application may create the impression that as the trial is moving forward, it is aimed at silencing Teffo and from preventing him getting to the truth of what happened on the night of the soccer player’s murder. This is incorrect. Teffo is a legal practitioner. As such, once he acquired the relevant tertiary education, worked as a candidate practitioner and passed the required exams, he was admitted as an advocate of the high court and placed on the advocate’s roll. The Legal Practice Council of South Africa is the regulatory body established by the Legal Practice Act of 2014. It regulates the legal profession.

It is therefore mandated to set norms, provide for the admission and enrolment of legal practitioners, and regulate the professional conduct of legal practitioners to ensure accountability. Legal practitioners must therefore adhere to and comply with a code of conduct regulated by the LPC. If a legal practitioner is found in breach of this code, he or she will be disciplined. The disciplinary process can be summarised as follows: the LPC would receive a complaint from the public about a legal practitioner’s conduct.

A copy of the complaint would be given to the legal practitioner to respond. The complainant would be given the legal practitioner’s response. The council will determine whether there is a prima facie case to investigate.

For instance, what evidence there is and whether there was a breach of the code of conduct. If the council proceeds with an investigation, parties will be informed. The Legal Practice Council of South Africa also places a list of its disciplinary committee investigations on its website. These hearings are open to the public.

The disciplinary committee will decide in terms of the Legal Practice

Council of South Africa Act on whether the legal practitioner is guilty of misconduct and recommend actions. If such an action is to have a legal practitioner struck off the roll or suspended, the recommendation must be made a court order. The Legal Practice Council of South Africa Act does make provision for a legal practitioner found guilty of breaching the code of conduct to appeal such a matter.

In the present matter, the Legal Practice Council of South Africa has stated that it had received complaints as far back as 2019 relating to alleged misconduct by Teffo.

One relates to assaulting a woman and another alleges abuse of trust money. This is money legal practitioners hold on behalf of clients, and using these funds has damning outcomes for any legal practitioner. The Pretoria High Court has reserved judgement in the matter. It is good to note that the high court is sitting as a full bench. This means there are two judges ruling on the matter. Should the court find in favour of Teffo, he can continue practising as a legal practitioner.

The Legal Practice Council of South Africa may appeal the high court’s judgment. However, the odds do not favour Teffo. The Legal Practice Council is a statutory body and can only act in terms of the powers it has been given. The council must follow the process prescribed by the Act and cannot act arbitrarily. It is therefore not possible that it decided to bring the application now as a vendetta or to stop Teffo from working on the Meyiwa trial.

Chances are high that Teffo may be struck off the roll or suspended. In such an event, he can appeal the high court decision. Teffo may also be charged with theft and face criminal charges as well. Legal practitioners play a crucial role in upholding the laws, particularly, in providing access to justice to poorer communities. Access to justice, also known as access to courts, is a fundamental human right. Nonetheless, practising in poorer communities means clients are not always able to pay legal fees.

It is foreseeable that this impacts a legal practitioner’s well-being. Perhaps the Legal Practice Council, in partnership with the Department of Justice and Office of the Chief Justice, can start considering how it can support attorneys at the forefront of providing access to justice in poorer communities.

Jansen is a lawyer. She is CEO of Zelna Jansen Consultancy.