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Doing good for communities

- Wits University

Wits law entities are using their expertise for public good in society.

For decades, Wits has been committed to advancing societal good through research excellence, producing quality graduates and contributing to the development of policies that benefit citizens.

Law entities based in the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management such as the Wits Law Clinic and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) are champions of human rights and social justice

Lawyers fighting for human rights

The Wits Law Clinic, which has been in operation for over forty years, is one of the biggest law clinics in South Africa renowned for its pro bono services to people in need of legal aid. The Clinic provides support to the public on general legal matters, family law cases, criminal and delict cases and labour matters. The Refugee Unit in the Clinic also provides aid to asylum-seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants with matters they affect them. On average, approximately 9000 people benefit from the services of the Law Clinic annually.

The provision of anti-retroviral treatment in South Africa is one of the many battles that was won on through the University’s involvement. The Law Clinic provided legal support in the case brought by the Treatment Action Campaign against the government over its failure to provide health care services to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV (PMTCT). This bitter battle between the government and civil society ended in 2002 and saved millions of lives. The Clinic, a catalyst for change in society, is also fighting for women who are victims of fraudulent marriages and whose lives have been disrupted as a result. Through its family, gender and child unit, the Clinic is holding Home Affairs accountable for fraudulent marriage.

The Clinic has on several occasions acted in precedent setting cases, a number of which have been reported in South African Law Reports. The Clinic instituted legal action to assist recognised refugees who struggled to obtain travel documents, despite the law permitting them to do so. 

“The first ever travel document issued to refugees was as a result of work from the Clinic,” says Daven Dass, Director of the Wits Law Clinic.

Nurturing aspiring lawyers underpins the ethos and values of this public resource. Currently, over 400 Wits final year law students receive practical in house experience. The Clinic’s Candidate Attorney Programme provides an opportunity for law graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete their articles and acquire quality legal training.

Speaking about the good the Clinic does for society, Dass says transformation, development and empowerment are the cornerstone of the Clinic.“It is always about empowerment. If you cannot empower individuals to realise their best, then you are not truly fulfilling your functions. If I do not empower people, I am not fulfilling my functions as a Director.”

“I need to be good to my staff. In doing so I empower and add value to them. I need to be good to my students. Through this, I am equipping final year students with the necessary practical skills that will allow them to measure with a level of adequacy and also help one day,” he adds.

CALS, a public interest law organisation, seeks to improve access to justice and promote human rights in the country. In defending the right to education, the Centre along with Section 27 took the Limpopo Department of Education to court in 2012, for failing to deliver textbooks to schools, six months into the academic year. The failure to deliver books impacted children from under resourced families.

Were it not for CALS - leaders, corporates and those connected to power would conspicuously flout the law. For example, communities living in mineral rich areas are often marginalised in matters pertaining to their land. Currently on the court's roll is the case made by CALS together with mining community networks challenging the 2018 Mining Charter, which the plaintiffs believe was developed without engaging with mining-affected communities.

In 2020, CALS represented mineworkers to ensure that they and affected communities were protected from COVID-19 in their workplaces. The Court ordered the state to engage meaningfully on future mining regulations with community networks, such as the Mining Affected Communities United in Action.

The Centre regularly deals with mass evictions and is representing about 900 people facing eviction by the City of Cape in an effort to protect their rights.

Institutions such as the Wits Law Clinic and CALS are a beacon of hope in society and bring relief to some of the most indigent and marginalised individuals and communities.