Redefining law’s soul

Taswell Papier (44) has become the first attorney from Africa to receive the global Lawyer of the Year award from Legal Business — a United Kingdom-based, worldwide industry publication — for his pro bono work and for getting leading local law firm Sonnenberg Hoffmann Galombik to set up South Africa’s first township pro bono office.

The son of a Cape Flats policeman, Papier practised mainly criminal law for 17 years in Mitchells Plain, and his pre-1994 work included representing detainees. Later, he appeared before the truth commission’s amnesty committee on behalf of Cape Flats anti-apartheid activists.

Remembered as a low-profile but well-liked professional who was in the right place at the right time, Papier’s legal career took a sharp turn in the ”new” South Africa.

After completing his LLM at Harvard in the mid-1990s, he grappled with the slippery issue of fishing quotas as one of those responsible for drafting the Marine Living Resources Act. He also served as occasional chairperson of the Fisheries Transformation Council, which replaced the quota allocation board, until 2000.

In April that year, the Cape High Court ruled that all long-line hake awards — worth close on R50million a year — had to be reallocated after a challenge from eight fisheries.

Fishing quotas remain a sensitive and contested arena; some recent black empowerment deals have used political connections to land them.

Being closely linked to the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel), Papier served three acting stints on the Bench between 2000 and 2001.

He further used his knack for negotiating tricky terrain when, as Cape law society president between 2002 and 2004, he had to deal with violations of attorney fidelity fund rules and kickbacks by property lawyers to estate agents.

The racism furore in the Western Cape legal profession also broke on his watch. ”Racism is a reality,” he said in 2004, and maintains it is still the case. ”We need to factor in issues of stereotypes and stigmas … often these prejudices interact with each other in our body language, in the way we speak, in the way we conduct ourselves.”

The impact of the pre-1994 legal system ”was to stereotype black practitioners as being good enough for the criminal court, but not for civil or commercial law”. It was still a struggle to break into corporate practice, said Papier, who sees himself as one of the black pioneers in that field. ”It’s a critical road to take. It’s important to get that experience and exposure and to practise those skills as a well-rounded practitioner.”

Papier’s most high-profile client was Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, in a celebrated sexual harassment case in South Africa four years back. Much less well known is the R204 000 in damages he helped win for Douglas Nkwali, a gardener from Wallacedene squatter camp who was left for dead after a racist attack in 1993.

He also has a seven-year involvement in the multimillion-rand compensation case against specialty product and services company AECI over the 1995 sulphur dioxide spill in Macassar, which affected 12 000 people. About R7million has already been paid out in this case.

But, despite moving from his Cape Flats practice to glitzy corporate law offices in Cape Town, he remains determined to continue delivering legal services to the poor.

Debt, evictions, domestic disputes and unfair dismissals predominate, and news of the free legal service has spread. Recently, an elderly couple who own an RDP house were helped to make their first will, and this approach has sparked the interest of the New York Bar, among others.

The public-interest work is about ”redefining the soul of the profession”, said Papier, when interviewed in the corporate pro bono offices. Once home to his now defunct law firm, they are around the corner from the busy Mitchells Plain police station court and hospital.

”You clinch the million-dollar deals on the one hand, walk out of that consultation, and then go and resolve a bread-and-butter issue for someone who is poor and illiterate,” he said. ”That gives life to the soul of the profession and defines the skills of a true lawyer.”

Pro bono practice remains a particular priority for Papier, perhaps because he supervised the promulgation of the Cape Law Society rule making such work obligatory. Unlike their colleagues elsewhere in South Africa, Cape attorneys must render two hours of free legal service a month.

As a result, in the past six months the pro bono office has taken up the cases of 140 township residents; others have been resolved through initial consultations.

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Marianne Merten
Guest Author

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