/ 28 October 2011

Lawyers riled by state IT deal

Lawyers Riled By State It Deal

A potentially money-spinning information technology system to ensure more black advocates receive work from the government is causing a stir in the legal fraternity, with questions being raised about the role of advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza in a deal between Advocates for Transformation (AFT) and Equillore, a mediation services company.

Documents in the possession of the Mail & Guardian show that Equillore “has been asked to provide the state attorney with operational support” to achieve some of the justice department’s strategic framework goals, including the state attorney awarding 65% of counsel briefs “to previously disadvantaged advocates by 2011”.

The M&G understands that the government asked the advocates’ body to enlist help, in this case Equillore, in developing a technological solution to increase the allocation of state briefs to “previously disadvantaged advocates”.

Ntsebeza, a member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), is also chairperson of the advocates’ body and Equillore’s non-executive chair. Members of the legal fraternity have raised concerns about a conflict of interest because of the “two hats Ntsebeza is wearing”.

Equillore’s managing director, Khanya Motshabi,submitted a letter to the M&G clarifying the company’s involvement in government.

One advocate from the Duma Nokwe Group of Advocates, to which Ntsebeza also belongs, said: “It’s apparent that certain advocates have formed a relationship with the minister at the JSC and that has led to this current situation with Equillore being asked to provide solutions to the briefing problem. Clearly that cannot be correct.” It was “purely this matter”, said the source, that led the Duma Nokwe Group to recall Ntsebeza as its leader earlier this year.

Advocates for Transformation has long criticised the government for not using more black advocates in legal cases involving the state. The organisation resolved at its 2010 annual general meeting to institute Promotion of Access to Information Act proceedings against Justice Minister Jeff Radebe to glean more information about the state’s briefing practices. It asked advocate Ishmael Semenya, also a JSC member, to head a committee to look into the matter.

But according to the minutes of Advocates for Transformation’s June 2011 annual general meeting, Radebe told Semenya at a meeting that he wanted to implement a policy of giving 60% of state work to black advocates. The organisation and government subsequently signed a memorandum of understanding to “ensure a correction of the historical imbalance in skills and access to state work”.

The proposed solution
Attached to the memorandum was the Equillore proposal to “develop, deploy and support a systematic solution for the appointment of counsel by the state attorney”, dated August 2010. The proposed solution would enable the state attorney to access a database of previously disadvantaged advocates whose updated profiles, including geographic location, suitability for particular cases and seniority, would help in the state attorney’s allocation of briefs.

According to a resolution at the annual general meeting, Semenya would “continue to investigate and explore the implementation of the proposal with any other company that may include Equillore”.

However, Semenya told the M&G Equillore was the only company asked by his “project committee” to look into the matter. He denied any conflict of interest involving Ntsebeza or himself, saying that although the company had been asked to develop the initial proposal for technological solutions, it “will be in line with any other entity to compete for that mandate if the AFT concludes that we should engage any party to help us.”

Ntsebeza said that he had declared his interest in the matter when it was tabled at AFT meetings and had excused himself from any debate on it. He said the project was “still in the explorative stage” and that there had been “no discussion about ownership [of the system], about a fee or about a memorandum of understanding. All the AFT has asked Equillore is: ‘Is this science possible?'”

Equillore, he said, had a proven track record, had “developed expertise” in case management and had done work for the Road Accident Fund. Equillore’s managing director, Khanya Motshabi, said the company had not “calculated the market value of the specification”, which was now complete. But the M&G understands from IT analysts that such an application could be sold to the government for millions of rand.

Motshabi said: “Equillore has not been appointed to develop a system. My understanding is that the AFT has appointed a committee to explore the implementation of model briefing patterns. “I understand that the committee was authorised to use any assistance it thought relevant. As it happens, the committee approached Equillore.”

Equillore insisted that its conduct was above board, and disputed some of the claims made in this article. The company’s MD replied here.