The legal profession in South Africa faces major changes from next year when the Legal Practice Act, 2014 (LPA) comes into full effect.
The LPA replaces the current fragmented regulatory framework and establishes a new Legal Practice Council (LPC) as the single regulator for both attorneys and advocates.
Implementing the LPA
Passage of the LPA was lengthy and controversial. Since 2015, a transitional body, the National Forum on the Legal Profession, has been working to resolve the remaining contentious issues and deliver recommendations to the government on implementation of the Act, including:
- the formation of the LPC and election of its members;
- the composition and function of the nine new provincial councils;
- vocational training requirements for candidate attorneys and pupil advocates; and
- preparing a new code of conduct for the entire profession.
How will the LPA impact the legal profession?
While the LPA retains the division between attorneys and advocates it marks a shift towards greater unification of the legal profession. In addition to creating a single regulator, the Act standardises minimum qualification and training requirements for all legal practitioners and aims to make conversion between the roles simpler. Other measures include:
- the end of self-regulation, as the new 23-person LPC will be include non-attorneys along with 10 practicing attorneys and six advocates;
- the creation of a Legal Ombudsman to investigate complaints from the public; and
- the granting of significant powers to the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, including the power to appoint three members to the LPC and initiate the dissolution of the LPC.
For attorneys, the LPC will replace the four statutory provincial law societies, which currently regulate practitioners, as well as the national representative body, the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA). However, the LPC will not have a representative function for the profession and the LSSA is leading an initiative to develop a new body to take over this role.
Advocates in South Africa currently take membership of one of ten Bars, which both regulate and represent the profession. With the LPA taking over regulation, the future role of the Bars and the General Council of the Bar of South Africa is also uncertain.
A further key objective of the LPA is to advance transformation in South Africa by ensuring the legal profession is more reflective of the demographics of the country. According to the LSSA, 59% of current attorneys are white and 62% are male. The LPA aims to remove barriers to entry into the profession for candidate attorneys and pupil advocates from under-represented groups.
The LPA also introduces new measures to increase access to legal services for all members of the public, including new fee structures and mandatory community service for practitioners.
The LPA retains the requirement that lawyers wishing to practice in South Africa must be a South African citizen or have permanent residence, in addition to meeting the minimum qualification and training requirements.
However, the LPA does provide for the recognition of equivalent foreign law degrees and empowers the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, in consultation with the Minister of Trade and Industry and the LPC, to make further regulations regarding the rights of foreign lawyers. It is not yet clear if new regulations will be introduced to further open the legal services market and the National Forum is not considering the issue during the transitional period.