South African lawyer wins International Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year award

28 Sep 2016


The South African lawyer who championed the case which freed millions of South Africans from the unjust garnishee orders has scooped a prestigious international award.  Odette Geldenhuys was named as the 2016 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year by the International Bar Association (IBA).

Geldenhuys is a senior associate at Webber Wentzel and is also founding director of ProBono.Org (This is not ProBonoMatters). She becomes the first African lawyer to get this award in what might come to benefit the pro bono course in South Africa and across the continent. Pro bono, the practice of donating hours for public good by lawyers is yet to take off earnestly in South Africa.

The award came a week after the Constitutional Court clarified the law with regards to garnishee orders formerly known as emoluments attachment orders (EAOs).

Geldenhuys worked with the University of Stellenbosch’s Legal Aid Clinic (LAC) amongst other parties on the case against unjust garnishee orders case.

These are orders which are applied by creditors to intercept salaries of debt defaulting workers. It has been easy for many unscrupulous creditors to abuse the system. They could go to court clerks to secure garnishee orders leaving multitudes of workers with next to nothing to take home from their salaries.

The effect of Constitutional Court ruling is that EAOs will no longer be issued by a clerk of the court, but will be granted by a magistrate upon being satisfied that it is just and equitable to do so and that the amount is appropriate. The Constitutional Court also closed a loophole which had been abused by the unscrupulous – the use of clerks in faraway courts to issue these orders. Only the court closest to where the affected leave or work may issue an EAO against them, thereby ensuring that the debtor can place his or her circumstances before the court. This judgment is likely to have a profound impact on the cycle of debt which has deprived many poor people of their dignity. The judgement potentially impacts on about 2.5 million active EAOs, equating to between 10 – 12% of South Africa’s workforce.

Webber Wentzel said in a statement the international award is a fitting close to one of the cases that was the basis for Odette’s nomination and also won her the title of ‘Attorney of the Year’ at the 2016 African Legal Awards held in early September.

Christo Els, Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel said “Odette’s work and achievements in the Pro Bono space have been inspirational, impacting South Africans who due to circumstances of poverty and access have been denied the right to justice.  At the heart of the matter is a lawyer who has made it her life’s work to contribute towards national efforts to strengthen access to justice.”

The IBA Pro Bono Award, honours lawyers who have shown an outstanding commitment to pro bono work as part of their legal careers. The award is bestowed annually in recognition of pro bono work that exhibits an exceptional level of commitment and dedication to the provision of free legal services and access to justice. It recognises work, including legislative reform, litigation, and transactional representation, that has brought about a significant impact – to an individual, community, group, or country, or to the provision of pro bono services generally.

Geldenhuys said “I am flattered and grateful that my work is being recognised by a prestigious organisation such as the IBA. It has made me reflect on all the beacons along the path that led me here. Caring about the little things keeps things real for me, specifically in the pro bono context that signifies the ‘little person’. It’s about moral consistency and taking the time to stand in the shoes of others and to see it from their perspective.”

Voices calling for more pro bono commitments in South Africa are growing. The argument is; costs of legal representation have risen beyond the means of the majority of South Africans. The country’s world renowned constitution is as good as nothing if the overwhelming majority of the population cannot access the justice system due to high lawyer fees. Platforms like ProBonoMatters, the online platform that allows ordinary people to list their cases to seek pro bono service, are galvanising the country’s legal fraternity to raise its commitment to doing public good.

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