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Family law courts in South Africa

British family lawyer David Hodson describes family law courts in South Africa.

It is very easy for us to become despondent when working daily in the family courts and having to cope with administrative and other delays and difficulties as family lawyers. There is rarely sign of improvement. There is too often signs of deteriorating standards through public service cuts. We must however recognise our fortunate position working in the family justice system in England in contrast to our colleagues, family law specialists, in other jurisdictions.

This was starkly shown at the IAML annual conference in mid September in Harrogate by a presentation from Beverley Clark of Clarks Attorneys, Johannesburg, one of South Africa's leading family lawyers. She presented a bleak picture of practice in the High Court in family cases in South Africa. A High Court judge had recently publicly written complaining of the following:

  • "air conditioning in courts operate erratically if at all, with the result that there is insufficient oxygen in court rooms requiring concentration and intellectual endeavour
  • elevators which frequently don't work, requiring the public and practitioners to climb many flights of stairs
  • lavatories which are often unfit to use
  • a telephone system without voicemail and where telephones cannot communicate to adjacent offices
  • electronic security which has not operated for years, security which is either non-existent or inadequate
  • stairs begrimed with dirt and cleaners who are not provided with scrubbing brushes or cleansing liquids
  • archives where records lie in no particular order on shelves and sometimes on the floor
  • registrar's office where we are daily advised that a court files containing pleadings are missing
  • inadequate and outdated computer technology
  • sometimes shortages of stationary
  • some judges working for lengthy periods without computers

... the list is endless. 

No one with any experience of this High Court can dispute that the entire system has been creaking to halt over the last few years."

Beverley went on to describe a system where the office court clerk would stand in a queue for up to 3 hours just to get to the court counter, and then invariably be told, quite honestly, that the file was missing and to come back another day. It is almost invariable practice each time for South African advocates to create their own duplicate court bundle for themselves and the judge, with increased costs to the client. The courts simply do not answer the telephone at all, rather than as often in England having to wait a long time. 

Law firms employ junior staff simply to stand in the queue each day at court to have any chance of getting to the counter, telephoning the office as soon as the counter appears in sight. Frequently judges and court rooms are triple booked, so the client with solicitors and advocates simply have to go away and wait another long-time for the next date. It takes up to 3 months for the court office to type up an order.

And this is the High Court!  It has higher standards and higher quality of service than the lower courts in South Africa, where very many family cases take place.

Whatever our perception of present standards within the English family justice system, it is good compared to many other countries. Not a reason to be complacent of course. Nevertheless there is reason to have huge sympathy, empathy and understanding of the condition of work of our colleagues abroad. They have the same kind of client problems, issues of law, procedure and evidence, getting paid and getting prepared for hearings yet with major problems in practice in their family courts. One has to admire the dedication and commitment and professionalism of family law solicitors in many countries in these circumstances.

About the Author 

David Hodson is a Partner at The International Family Law Group LLP. He acts in complex family law cases, often with an international element. 

He is an English specialist accredited solicitor, mediator, family arbitrator, Deputy District Judge at the Principal Registry of the Family Division, High Court, London and also an Australian qualified solicitor, barrister and mediator. He is a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and author of A Practical Guide to International Family Law (Jordan Publishing, 2008). He is chair of the Family Law Review Group of the Centre for Social Justice.

This is one of a series of articles written by David on international family law for the Jordans family law electronic weekly newsletter. If you have a query regarding English or European family law, click here to contact David.

This article is general information only, does not represent the views / opinions of Love Law Online Pty Ltd and is not legal advice. Consult an Australian Legal Practitioner via Love Law Legal Consultations to obtain legal advice for your unique situation.



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