While the criteria at legal aid services are specific to individuals who are quite often destitute, a new initiative in Cape Town has made cost effective legal services easily accessible to anyone. Aptly titled the Legal Café, the initiative, which is housed in a quaint coffee shop and market deli, provides clients with a comfortable setting to deal with stressful situations. Located in the bustling Salt River area, clients are assisted by highly experienced attorneys who have for years been active in assisting the often marginalized within the community.
How did it all begin?
One of the three directors of the Legal Café, practising attorney Igsaan Higgins, explains that while he and his co-director, attorney Faizel Bardien, have been practicing law for the past 20 years, the two have always had a bias for the underdogs against banks and big corporations.
Higgins, who practices in the area of public interest law and human rights law and Bardien, who practices in the area of property and conveyance, met while working as advisors at the University of the Western Cape’s Legal Aid Clinic, describing their experience as being filled with countless consultations.
Following the completion of their final year of studying and articles, they opened a law firm in the Cape Town suburb of Claremont.
“Probably 50 per cent of the work, we did for free. We always had the challenge of charging poor people for legal services,” Higgins stated.
While operating their law firm, Higgins and Bardien attracted clients from all income groups, even being employed as legal counsel for the Cape Minstrels, the Khoisan, and the Hout Bay Fishing Industry.
Bardien says the Hout Bay Fishing Industry case stands out as a highlight in his career.
“I remember the fishing client came to us after they had lost their quotas. We then provided legal service to them without charging a cent. We managed to get their quotas,” Bardien said.
After opening in 1997, Bardien says that for almost 20 years of representing and assisting the Hout Bay Fishing Industry, it was able to successfully remain in function.
For Higgins, his personal accomplishment dates back to the prominent Hassam case, in which he assisted in changing Muslim Personal law in South Africa.
In the landmark case of Hassam v Jacobs NO and Others, Fatima Gabie Hassam could not inherit from her husband’s deceased estate when he passed away without leaving a will. The reason for this was that her marriage to him was not legally recognised as she was a party to a polygamous Muslim marriage. Fatima also approached the courts for relief and the Western Cape High Court ruled in her favour.
The ruling was then referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation. The Constitutional Court further ruled that Fatima had been discriminated against on the grounds of religion, marital status and gender and that her right to equality had been violated. The Constitutional Court confirmed that women who are party to a polygamous marriage concluded in terms of the Muslim law are deemed to be spouses for purposes of inheriting or claiming from the deceased estate where their deceased husband died without leaving a will.
“Muslim women were unable to participate in the laws of the country due to the fact that Muslim marriages were potentially polygamous. So if your husband dies, you would be unable to inherit or claim any form of maintenance on your husband’s estate,” Higgins stated.
As a game changer in South African personal law, the case paved the way for Muslim women in polygamous marriages to claim inheritance in terms of the Intestate Succession Act and claim maintenance in terms of the Maintenance of Surviving Spouse Act.
Bardien explains that while the pair started granting pro bono legal advice on the Voice of the Cape Radio during the Legal Hour, they sought a more accessible means to assist the community. The Legal Café was subsequently established.
What is the Legal Cafe?
Run by three directors, the Legal Café is a non-profit company that is linked to the Market Deli and acts as an access to justice programme.
As a concept which was birthed in the UK, Higgins explains that it draws on their natural informal approach to dealing with clients, which they assert allows clients to feel more comfortable when dealing with stressful matters.
“We wanted to bring people into an environment where it is not as formalised as a law firm, where you must make an appointment and then go into a boardroom where people feel intimidated,” Higgins noted.
After funding the South African Academy for Young Leaders in 2009, the Access to Justice Project in the form of the Legal Café and the Single Moms Project, the directors decided to combine the different ventures into one initiative.
Since the existing market was used for cooking by the South African Academy for Young Leaders, the pair decided to open a restaurant, a venture which the pair had long wanted to embark on.
“So now we are merging all those things into a coffee shop and a restaurant, because what is happening is everything that the restaurant sells goes directly to the three NGO’s.”
Clients to the legal café are charged R350 and are provided with an R80 voucher, which can be used for a meal in the café.
“The balance of the money is divided between the three NGOS’s. So, we have made the NGO’s completely self-sustainable,” Higgins stated.
What has the response been?
In combining a café with a legal advice centre, Higgins asserts that the concept has been well received.
He says that the initiative provides the most marginalised within society with adequate and effective access to legal advice that they would otherwise have to pay large sums of money for.
“We fought very hard to get to this dispensation; we now have a constitution, we have parliament, we have parliamentarians making the laws – but who is benefitting from that? If lawyers are too expensive, then the public cannot benefit from the law, so now we have made law accessible to everyone.”
In the Legal Café’s short existence, being a little over three months old, the pair notes that it has assisted in a variety of cases. Most notably, however, its attorneys have assisted in divorce and property dispute cases.
“When people go to a law firm, that’s divorce on the horizon, but when women come here they are educated about their rights. If a woman says that she is married Islamically and her husband keeps threatening to throw her out, but everything is on his name and you give her advice, then suddenly she understands her rights. When she goes back, there is a good chance that her marriage will work, because she has been empowered,” Higgins stated.
After consultation, once clients indicate that they require further legal services; clients are referred to one of 30 attorneys on the Legal Café’s panel.
The vision for the future
Bardien explains that with the growth in their clientele, they hope to increase the number of attorneys on the panel, as well as appoint attorneys with varied expertise.
“We plan to source attorneys with different expertise, so that we can recommend an attorney suited for the matter. That attorney will then consult with the client and does not charge for consultation,” Bardien continued.
He says that clients who require further legal assistance will then continue to work exclusively with the attorney to whom they were referred to.
For more information, contact 0720102030, 021 447 2656, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch Bardien and Higgins on VOC91.3fm every Wednesday on The Shahieda Carlie Show, between 6pm to 7pm.