LEGAL ASSISTANCE EXPERIMENT SUCCEEDS

Carol Bruyns, one of two senior public defenders in Johannesburg, says the experiment to provide free legal services has already made a material difference to a lot of people. In the first six months, 1,486 cases were handled and 923 finalized.

Between 55 and 60 percent of defended clients who pleaded not guilty were acquitted and 90 percent of bail applications (771) were successful.

"Given that there were a total of 15,000 cases heard in the courts during this six-month period, it may seem like a drop in the ocean," says Mrs. Bruyns.

"But we have shown that much can be done with only 10 lawyers and a small office."

Bruyns says the system has been well received by both state prosecutors and magistrates.

Clients have hailed the system as a breakthrough and only a handful have indicated that they would prefer to be represented by attorneys in private practice.

"We have had some complaints from attorneys who argue that the public-defender system is taking business away from them, but then there are many who have welcomed the project," says Bruyns.

She says there were several teething problems where the system needed to be streamlined. The most problematic was the unacceptable delays in interviewing clients in custody.

"But we are feeling our way and making improvements as we go along," she says.

"As we are following the US model, we are setting up a telephone-conference facility so that we can discuss problems with our counterparts in America and learn from their experience."

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