Courts are in turmoil after SA’s biggest litigant, the Road Accident Fund, stopped using attorneys at the beginning of June.
About 190,000 cases are in limbo and “civil trial rolls around the country are in chaos”, North Gauteng High Court judge Wendy Hughes said last week. “Claims handlers and RAF officials are trying to appear on behalf of the RAF in court, when they have no legal entitlement to do so.”
Claimants were suffering as cases were postponed, and some trials were going ahead in the absence of the RAF, leading to damages awards far higher than they should be.
The chaos follows the RAF’s court victory on June 1 over 46 firms of attorneys on a panel the fund set up in 2014 to handle its legal fights. Intending to scrap its “litigious model” of handling claims, the fund won the right to disband the panel.
Hughes’s order on June 1 said the panel should be retained for six months to avoid chaos in courts, but the RAF stopped using the lawyers or paying their outstanding bills. On July 2, the attorneys were given leave to approach the Supreme Court of Appeal.
They returned to the high court to force the fund to keep using their services pending the appeal outcome, in compliance with Hughes’s order. The judge granted their request, saying the conduct of the RAF and its acting CEO Collins Letsoalo, had caused a “constitutional crisis”.
She added: “The judicial system is in disarray as [Letsoalo] … seeks to ignore the court processes and proceed as though no order exists.”
People with claims against the RAF were being “held to ransom” by the failure of Letsoalo and the RAF to “perform their constitutional duty”.
The lawyers, whose livelihoods were under threat, were the victims of a “deliberate attempt … to evade the operation of the [court] order and have it declared as moot when and if an appeal is heard”, which could be in six months’ time.
In judgment, Hughes accused the RAF of a “comedy of errors” in its efforts to hurriedly disband the panel of attorneys.
“Though the RAF wants to do away with these services, they still want to employ new attorneys to assist under the auspices of the state attorney’s office and/or outsource the very work that the panel attorneys are doing to their corporate attorneys [who charge three times as much].
“There is no logic in this scheme,” she said. “This is an exceptional case and a constitutional crisis looms. The court cannot sit back supine whilst the RAF is … eroding the constitutional rights of the public at large. The status quo has to prevail to allow all parties to reach an amicable, just, and equitable solution to protect the rights of the SA public.”
Last week, she accused Letsoalo of “various tactical ploys” intended to avoid complying with the June 1 ruling. “With the manner and attitude of the RAF and [Letsoalo] one month after the grant of the judgment and order, it is evident that there is an ongoing effort in delaying adherence of the order.”
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