The government faces growing legal bills as it grapples with internal issues and an increasing number of court challenges from the private sector and citizens, says president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Addressing the inaugural Intergovernmental National Litigation Forum in Gauteng on Friday (25 February), Ramaphosa said the legal fees for national and provincial spheres of government over the past five financial years amount to approximately R7 billion.
“Our Bill of Rights holds that every person has the right to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair; they have a right to seek the review of administrative action by a court of law. This is a right that we must value and uphold.
“The fact that some South Africans are resorting to the courts to uphold their rights points to widespread and systemic shortcomings in service delivery. Our first responsibility as the government is to ensure that we address all these shortcomings and that all persons in this country are able to fully exercise their rights.”
Ramaphosa added that other systemic problems had led to the government’s inflated legal bill – including mass overcharging.
“The state is the largest consumer of legal services in the country. Government is almost always overcharged for legal services. By sheer scale, the government should be paying less for legal services because we are dealing with public funds,” he said.
“We employ hundreds of professionals through the Offices of the State Attorney countrywide to provide litigation and legal advisory services. Yet, despite these considerable human resources, we face significant challenges, many of them of our own making.”
The president called on government departments to be much more alert when handling legal matters.
“When there is a legal case, we must immediately pay attention and pay due diligence, the ineptitude and carelessness must come to an end. We know that delays and failures by government departments to address service delivery issues timeously or to settle matters at early stages increases costs.”
Service delivery failings
In June 2021, former finance minister Tito Mboweni warned that the National Treasury was increasingly being asked to intervene in the financial affairs of municipalities across South Africa as they are unable to provide basic services.
Responding in a written parliamentary Q&A, Mboweni pointed to a court action brought by Astral Foods Limited compelling the National Treasury to prepare a financial recovery plan for the Lekwa local municipality in Mpumalanga.
Mboweni said that there are now similar court applications which Treasury is dealing with across South Africa, with at least six other municipalities facing calls for intervention.
Although local governments are autonomous, there is still a supervisory authority within the Constitution for the provincial government to ensure that these services are rendered.
Read: Finance minister on how much the petrol price will have to increase to pay for e-tolls in South Africa