/ 25 October 2019

Women lawyers: ‘We are not respected’

Clarifying: Hermione Cronje.
Clarifying: Hermione Cronje. (Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images)



A group of senior women lawyers have written to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, furious that no senior female advocates were briefed to assist the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) with its state capture prosecutions.

“It is astonishing that not a single senior counsel or practitioner met the criteria for selection. We take umbrage at the suggestion that female silks are not, or cannot, be respected,” said the letter, dated October 18.

They have asked for “an urgent dialogue” with the president and the minister about the state’s briefing patterns.

The letter followed a report in the Sunday Times on October 13 that four top legal minds — Wim Trengove SC, Hamilton Ngwako Maenetje SC, Geoff Budlender SC and Tembeka Ngcukaitobi — had been briefed to prosecute state capture crimes.

Signed by 40 senior women lawyers, the letter said: “There are several female advocates who were conferred the honour of silk many years before their male counterparts, and may we be bold enough to say that the honourable minister of justice must have known this. So too, the national director of public prosecutions.”

One of the women silks who signed the letter, Soraya Hassim SC, said that there
were a number of “very experienced” senior women lawyers, including at least two women senior counsel, who specialised in criminal law.

However, Lamola’s spokesperson, Chrispin Phiri, said the justice department had nothing to do with the choice of counsel put on brief by the National Prosecuting Authority. Its only role was to facilitate the finances.

Bulelwa Makeke, the head of communications at the National Prosecuting Authority, confirmed that the choices were made by Hermione Cronje, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority’s investigative directorate.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Cronje said the four were appointed on an urgent basis to help with specific cases, some already on the roll — because they already had the background on the matter.

For example, Trengove had earlier been brought in by the Asset Forfeiture Unit in the case regarding the preservation order over assets in the Gupta-linked Estina dairy, she said.

The four were specifically brought in to conduct inquiries under section 28 of the NPA Act, on Cronje’s behalf.

Section 28 authorises Cronje to summons people for questioning and to hand over evidence during an investigation.

“I am highly sensitive to having women empowered,” said Cronje, adding that, where there were women juniors that also had the background knowledge necessary, they were chosen.

The directorate was also in the process of tendering for counsel to be part of a briefing panel going forward, but this was still in the works, she said.

Hassim said the letter was directed to the president and justice minister instead of the National Prosecuting Authority, because the justice minister is ultimately responsible for briefing of counsel by the state.

She said this was just one instance of discrimination against women lawyers, and “we want to address the bigger picture”.

The letter said: “We believe that an urgent dialogue with you will go a long way to achieving parity for female lawyers.”