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Justice for all?

A lawyer, who is representing about 270 miners - is trying to get the government to pay his legal fees.
Last modified: 12 Jul 2013 23:48
Miners at Lonmin platinum mines last year went on strikes over low wages [File/EPA]

The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria is hearing a very important case right now.

Dali Mpofu - a lawyer who is representing about 270 miners who were injured and arrested on August 16 last year - is trying to get the government to pay his legal fees.

That's when police opened fire on miners who had been protesting for better wages - they killed 34 of them.

Mpofu is representing the miners at the government's Commission of Inquiry which has been tasked with getting to the bottom of what happened, why it happened and what the roles were of the miners, police, Lonmin platinum mine managers, the departments of mineral resources among others.

Initially Mpofu's fees were paid by the Raith Foundation, but the money's run out. He's warning he will have to pull out of the Commission which would leave the 270 miners he represents without a voice in this important forum.

Legal Aid (state funding) was granted to the lawyers representing the families of the miners who were killed, so it's difficult for many South Africans to see why the same wouldn't be extended to the men who were wounded.

Why should they be penalised for the fact they can't afford a lawyer?

In his submissions, Mpofu said "this matter concerns a great plethora of constitutional and statutory rights".

These include access to justice, the prohibition against unfair discrimination, and the right to legal representation.

In a nutshell, the matter concerned justice, the rule of law, economic inequality or class discrimination, and fairness, he said.

It's a compelling argument despite the Ministry of Justice saying that the miners don't qualify because the Commission is inquisitorial, not adversarial.

Which means the Commission is not going to charge anyone with anything itself - that's not its function. But there could be civil or criminal cases in the aftermath of the Commissions reports.

The National Prosecuting Authority may lay charges against Mpofu's clients and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate may pursue charges against some of the officers involved - neither can happen until the Commission is finished.

However, it makes sense that, because so much testimony has already been put in the public arena through the Commission, it could be used as part of any potential cases.

To leave the wounded miners unrepresented would seriously disadvantage them given the possibility of criminal charges once the Commissions finished.

To rub salt in the wound, consider the fact that the various ministries which may give testimony at the Commission in future, and the police - responsible for 34 of the deaths - have lawyers paid for by the state.

It would seem in the interests of justice to extend the same courtesy to those most in need.