SOUTH AFRICA LEGAL PRACTITIONERS UNDER LOCKDOWN: IS IT TIME TO GO DIGITAL?
Life as we have known it for lawyers in South Africa, has changed. Lawyers are forced to think outside the box and find innovative ways to sustain their practices. For most, going digital might be the most viable, if not, the only option if they are to survive our current times. However, with our Courts, Universities and the overall structure of the average legal practice generally being geared towards manual systems, how then, within such an ecosystem, will lawyers be able to successfully implement any meaningful digital solution into the world of law?
Consequent upon the Presidential announcement of the lockdown, legal practitioners, like most non-essential professionals, are to remain in isolation at their respective homes. As an exception, legal practitioners who are engaged in urgent litigation processes or the provision of “essential” legal services such as bail applications, maintenance and domestic violence related matters and cases involving children, must seek a permit from the Provincial Director of the relevant Provincial Legal Council.
The restriction on freedom of movement means that legal practitioners whose field of expertise fall outside the ambit of the legal services identified as “essential” stand to suffer huge financial losses which will have catastrophic effects on employment, access to justice and the economy. Experts are of the view that businesses that invest in strategic, operational and financial resilience to emerging global risks will be better positioned to respond and recover. This is worrisome for legal professionals in South Africa who are governed by a system that remains largely unchanged and dependent on manual systems.
Perhaps it is time to consider the digitalisation of courts? This includes remote trials through video conferencing, remote consultations and electronic systems which allow service and filing of pleadings. Court digitalisation aims to improve court performance and the efficiency and accessibility of legal services. In other words, lockdown or not, legal practitioners will have to develop innovative ways to continue operations. Although some of the courts have commenced with the digitalisation of service and filing processes, Courts in South Africa still largely operate on paper. Our judiciary needs to actively explore other measures for the enhancement of court performance, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the judiciary system to avoid a complete standstill of legal services during critical times where access to justice is desired.
It is also time to infuse practice management and technology skills into the law school curriculum to encourage technological innovation. Legal education in South Africa is largely criticised for its disengagement with the profession by failing to prepare students for practice. In an era that requires innovation and technology, with lack of skills and technical know-how, legal practitioners are finding it difficult to stay afloat during this lockdown. It seems, in the current century, the success of a legal practitioner may be attributed to the practitioner’s ability to adopt and implement technological innovation within his/her practice. We, however, remain hopeful that the lockdown has encouraged legal practitioners to tap into creativity and entrepreneurial skills, making way for innovative responses to the current socioeconomic changes that have a bearing on our legal system.
*The views expressed in this entry belong entirely to the author.