We all need a means of accessing legal muscle

The late black consciousness leader Steve Biko once said “no average black man can ever at any moment be absolutely sure that he is not breaking a law.

“There are so many laws governing the lives and behaviour of black people that sometimes one feels that the police only need to page at random through their statute books to be able to get a law under which to charge a victim.”

This year we celebrate 10 years since South Africa officially became a non-racial country, so I would like to believe that Biko’s observations have spread to people of other hues.

In fact, these days, it appears that anyone can find themselves in trouble with the law, regardless of their station in life. The rape allegation — without discussing the merits of the case — against Cape High Court Judge Siraj Desai is one example.

The judge, being who and what he is, will surely know better than most what steps to take next.

But one thing that this, and the case involving national soccer coach Shakes Mashaba, has highlighted is that the world is not always a fair or just place.

Mashaba, for the uninitiated, is statistically the South African national soccer team’s most successful coach. But this did not stop him from being fired just weeks away from leading his team to the African championships.

Judge Desai and Mashaba have the financial muscle to have their day in court and to have their lawyers make their unhappiness go away.

But for millions of South Africans, who find themselves in legal hot water, financial ruin and untold harm to their reputations are more likely.

Put differently, millions of us, should we face a legal jam, will discover that we do not have insurance when we need it most.

Whereas medical aid schemes have become the normal fringe benefit offered by companies, peace of mind on the legal front is left to the individual’s devices.

Considering the sickeningly high cost of legal fees it is about time that the state took the matter as seriously as it does medical costs.

It is through the concerted efforts of the public and the government that medicine prices, especially those of HIV/Aids medication, have gone down.

Recently, the much maligned Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, announced measures that may see the cost of medicines plummet by as much as 70%.

This suggests that a strong legal insurance industry, working with a vigilant public and a willing state, could make getting into trouble with the law less stressful than it is currently

Many South Africans have, at some stage, found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some of them have been wrongly accused and later released when the courts have seen through the overzealousness of the arresting officers or malicious complainants.

If the state knew that many of its citizens would seek and get legal remedies when wrongly detained, efforts would surely be made to ensure that the traditional high-handedness of the South African Police was brought to an end sooner rather than later.

The Legal Aid Board has done, and continues to do, a lot for the indigent in conflict with the law. But it has a threshold as to who it can assist and under what circumstances.

According to the board’s chairperson, Judge Dunston Mlambo, “There are 58 Justice Centres in South Africa providing legal aid to those who cannot afford their own lawyers. Unfortunately, that means that for the more than 50% of the 46,3-million South Africans with a household income of less than R1 600, there is one Justice Centre per 396 000 people.”

If during apartheid South Africa “black man you were on your own” (to misquote Biko), in the freedom era we are all on our own with regard to legal protection.

Since a mere allegation can wreck a comfortable middle-class life and leave one financially and professionally destroyed, even if it is proven to be unfounded, legal insurance should start to become more of an issue.

It is only when all of us can sleep comfortably in the knowledge that we have sufficient access to legal protection, regardless of our financial status, that the much vaunted access to justice for all becomes a truth.

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