Legal Aid defends high costs

The Boeremag treason trial is believed to have cost taxpayers over R30 million.

FILE: Boeremag accused and their lawyers in the North Gauteng High Court. Picture: Barry Bateman/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - With the Boeremag treason trial costing taxpayers more than R30 million in legal fees, Legal Aid South Africa has had to remind the country why it spends so much money defending alleged criminals.

The North Gauteng High Court on Tuesday handed down sentences ranging from five years to the maximum of 35 years to the 20 men involved in the coup plot.

They were all found guilty of high treason last year, while five were found guilty on the additional charges of culpable homicide and conspiracy to commit murder.

The case is one of the longest running and most expensive trials in South African legal history and there's still a possibility of appeals, meaning higher legal fees.

Dr Henry Lerm, Justice Centre Executive at Legal Aid SA, says its budget for 2012/13 is R1.26 billion.

While he describes that amount as a "drop in the ocean" compared to developed nations, he says the true value of Legal Aid's work is "immeasurable."

Lerm says a strict means test needs to be passed before assistance is provided.

"If you were to earn a monthly income, it has to be R5,000 or less for a single applicant. If you are married, it would be R6,000."

Many of the members of the Boeremag used their own money to pay for their representation until they reached the financial levels where Legal Aid would provide funding, he says.

Despite the extreme nature of the crimes, Lerm says the right to legal representation is ingrained in the Constitution and needs to be honoured.

"If one looks at Section 35 of the Constitution, everyone is guaranteed a right to legal representation. If you can't afford it, that's why we're there. We take our mandate from the Constitution and we are there to assist the needy. Particularly the needy - I want to emphasise that."

Lerm was also at pains to point out that Legal Aid SA does not offer below-standard representation.

"We have come a long way. At one stage, people viewed legal aid attorneys with scepticism. But I can truthfully say we can compete with the best at the moment."

To listen to Lerm's full interview with 567 CapeTalk/Talk Radio 702's Bruce Whitfield, click here.