Incompetent state attorneys blow over R350 million in lost cases

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The incompetence of state attorneys is costing South African taxpayers hundreds of millions of rands, as the state loses as many as 70% of all its legal cases.

These are the findings of a report by the Public Service Commission, investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of the Office of State Attorneys (OSA).

According to the report, the OSA loses about 7 out of 10 finalised cases based on its research into the Office from the 2012/13 financial year.

The OSA also has a high rate of settlements – which also cost the state money – though the PSC notes that settlement amounts are typically a lot lower than what is initially claimed.

Many of these settlements, however, are taken in “cases (that are) are deemed too difficult to defend”, the PSC said.

The cost of losing

The PSC said that it is unable to provide the overall legal cost of cases, due to fact that most of the sampled departments did not reflect the rand value of the cases that were dealt with and cases cut across different financial years.

However, “from the limited information provided it is evident that rand value of legal costs is substantial in some departments,” it said.

The report listed the following known expenses on lost cases:

  • The Department of Health indicated that it cost a total R20.5 million on cases settled over two financial years,
  • The Department of International Relations and Cooperation paid R928,442 for briefs provided to counsel over three financial years.
  • South African Police Service: Litigation and Administration spent R5.9 million for cases related to recovery of debt.
  • A total amount of R323.8 million was spent by SAPS: Gauteng for cases that were decided against the department over the three financial years.

The legal drain on state funds isn’t entirely down to incompetent attorneys – the OSA is also understaffed, with a 26% vacancy rate.

This means that each state attorney is overloaded with cases, so much so that if they were to dedicate an equal amount of time to work on every case, it would average at about three hours for each.

“There are 300 attorneys in various offices of the State Attorney. In the 2015/16 financial year, the attorneys started with more than 248,000 files which on average means more than 660 files per attorney,” the report said.

“Statistically, the OSA needs 2,487 attorneys to bring the ratio of files per attorney to an acceptable standard of between 100 and 150.”

On top of staff shortages, there is also a budget shortfall. The budget that was allocated to the OSA is R107 million, spread over a period of 3 financial years, starting from the 2015/16 financial year.

According to the needs analysis that was conducted by the PSC, R125 million is needed to fully fund the function.

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