Vredehoek resident Odette Geldenhuys achieved a first for Africa when she was named pro bono lawyer of the year by The International Bar Association last month.
This follows her recent involvement in a case in which the Constitutional Court judgement ruled unconstitutional, a method of debt collecting called Emoluments Attachment Orders (EOAs), which affected more than two million people.
The judgement has been described as a major victory for the poor working class.
Dedicating her award to pro bono lawyers across the world who were making a difference in their communities, she said: “I felt very grateful because it is a once in a lifetime acknowledgement. I am grateful and quite humbled.
“It was on the global scale so it took my breath away because I sit on the southernmost point of Africa and the people I was shortlisted with, were from all over the world. The panel had looked at pro bono work in many different jurisdictions.”
The International Bar Association (IBA) is the biggest member-based organisation of the legal profession in the world.
The annual conference takes place in different cities and this year’s conference took place in Washington DC and was attended by 6 000 people.
Each year, the IBA Pro Bono Award, established in 2010 by the Pro Bono Committee, honours lawyers who have shown and outstanding commitment to pro bono work as part of their legal careers. Ms Geldenhuys was on a shortlist of seven people who were vying for the award, including lawyers from Australia and Spain. She also was a speaker on the pro bono panel at the conference.
Ms Geldenhuys, who studied at UCT and at Wits University, said pro bono work was especially important in South Africa because of the history of the country.
People have social, geographic and financial barriers to accessing justice. She said the state-funded Legal Aid system which was formed in 1961, was essentially created for 13 percent of the population.
“When democracy came, that system had to be changed and we had to make it cater for a 100 percent of the population. That is still a real challenge for the state funded legal aid system.”
She said it became an obligation for the private legal profession to provide free legal services to fill that gap.
In South Africa it became a legal requirement for attorneys to each do a minimum of 24 hours of pro bono work a year.
Ms Geldenhuys’ firm, Webber Wentzel, has taken it a step further and created a full-time pro bono unit.
“This approach has allowed us to take on really complex and impactful cases with a public interest.”
One of these cases was last month’s judgement by the Constitutional Court on EOAs.
An EOA, commonly known as a garnishee, is a court order that compels a debtor’s employer to pay his or her debt from his or her salary.
“The problem that we have in South Africa is that the legislation itself was unconstitutional because under certain circumstances it allowed for these EOAs to be issued by a clerk of the court, thereby bypassing a hearing in a magistrate’s court and therefore bypassing access to justice.
“The Constitutional Court essentially confirmed the finding of the Cape High Court. But it did something quite revolutionary where the court changed the reading to make it constitutional and immediately applicable.”
The court made the ruling on Tuesday September 13.
The Constitutional Court ruled that EOAs now require judicial oversight to determine whether such an order is just and equitable and that the amount was appropriate. This judgement, said Ms Geldenhuys, was a victory for poor, working class who earned less than R3 500 a month.
Asked how she came to work on this case, Ms Geldenhuys said her firm had been approached by businesswoman Wendy Appelbaum.
One of the workers on her farm in Stellenbosch had an EOA and when she started researching it, realised it was unfair. The firm then made contact with the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic where they found out that there were hundreds of clients in a similar position.
“When we looked at the case, (we realised) that people affected by EOAs were the working poor and had a very low income. That is a very vicious circle of debt and reckless lending. The credit provider can recoup the outstanding reckless loan via this fast track method of an EOA. We realised that it was a situation that affected not only the hundreds of cases that we saw in Stellenbosch. There were more than two million active EOAs in South Africa,” said Ms Geldenhuys. And so the case was lodged against 13 credit providers and law firm Flemix & Associates which had administered EAOs on their behalf.
Ms Geldenhuys said the pro bono unit at the firm focused on land restitution, LGBTI and discrimination cases.
She said Webber Wentzel had a history of collaborating with organisaitons like the National Resource Centre, Equal Education and the Social Justice Coalition.
Christo Els, senior partner at Webber Wentzel, said: “Odette’s work and achievements in the pro bono space have been inspirational, impacting South Africans who, due to circumstances of poverty and access, have been denied the right to justice. At the heart of the matter is a lawyer who has made it her life’s work to contribute towards national efforts to strengthen access to justice.
“Webber Wentzel’s pro bono practice was established in 2003 to provide free legal services to various organisations and communities in order to strengthen the rule of law and to ensure equal justice for all members of South African society. We are proud to have an attorney of Odette’s standing and dedication as part of our team, always acting with such devotion and sensitivity,” he said.