Bolt from Blue Strikes Heath Unit
It came like a bolt out of the blue for many, probably because Judge Willem Heath and the anticorruption unit he heads are said to be like a hard, immovable rock.
Their public image has been one of invincibility. It would be hard not to have gained such an aura in their campaign against corruption and to recover taxpayers' money. However, a group representing 140 lawyers this week succeeded in dislodging that rock. In the process they shook the Heath unit and, it would appear, the public to the core.
There was an outcry yesterday, with many people calling radio stations to vent their anger. So what went wrong?
SA Association of Personal Injury Lawyers president Malcolm Lyons says the decision vindicates the "thousands of honourable personal injury attorneys who were doing their best to provide access to justice to injured people". He says the attorneys believe that there was a political motive behind the probe into their affairs.
The attorneys "have been the target of politicians and others" who have tried to portray them in a negative light in the past two years. From Parliament to the press, their image has been under constant assault, according to Lyons.
"We put an end to that. The judgment on Tuesday put an end to all that." Lyons traces the beginning of the problem to former transport minister Mac Maharaj's involvement in the Road Accident Fund as far back as five years ago. According to Lyons, Maharaj drafted "white papers giving very little compensation to victims. This was going to make everybody equally poor."
Maharaj, he says, failed to see that the real problem was with the fund, not the lawyers. "The real problem," he says, "was that there were too many accidents and the fund had to pay out too much money. His Arrive Alive initiative did not have much of an effect." Legislation struck down this week was defective because it gave the unit the power to probe what went on between an attorney and his client, "which had nothing to do with illegality".
The unit "did not probe anything illegal. It was beyond government to investigate anything that did not involve illegality." Maharaj, though reluctant to comment because he is no longer in government, disagrees: "One accepts the judgment of the court, which turns on the definition of public money. But the court has not pronounced on the problem of corruption. The problem is still in the public domain."
To illustrate the point, he quotes Judge Arthur Chaskalson: "The allegations do, however, reveal a serious concern about the handling of (fund) claims. If true, they call for urgent attention." The court, says Maharaj, pointed out that the allegations were damaging to the attorneys' profession, and that it was in its interests and that of road accident victims that "there to be proper channels for resolving the complaints".
Lyons says the court emphasised that all that is necessary is accurate accounting and a means of verifying accounts where the clients have reservations concerning accuracy. Says Maharaj: "If the issues (around corruption) are true, the fact that the problem exists means that those regulatory mechanisms are inadequate." Although corruption and the behaviour of some of the attorneys has not been scrutinised in court, Maharaj appears to believe the allegation is not without basis.
"In motivating for the proclamation to investigate, we conducted a study of about 143 cases as a sample of complaints, but we removed the names of (the complainants and the attorneys)." Meanwhile, Heath says he has not decided whether to resign and devote himself to working full-time for the unit or go back to his judicial work. He will decide in the next few days.
Heath says the judgment should not have any implications for the controversial R43bn deal arms probe. "We are still waiting for a proclamation to be passed. I will personally carry on with my work until the legislation has been changed," he says. The justice minister's spokesman, Paul Setsetse, says the ministry is anxious to retain the skills in the unit: "The staff has accumulated valuable skills and we would like to continue with those people." However, one thing is certain about the court's judgment: it is bound to be debated for some time.
With acknowledgement to Bonile Ngqiyaza and the Business Day.