Cape Town Legal Aid shows intern the real South Africa

Jordan Leigh Lacroix

By Jordan Lacroix

There are no big-shot egos in fancy suits at the Legal Aid office in Cape Town; no staff lunches at high-end restaurants, or corner offices with expansive views over the city - just genuine, hard-working lawyers who want to make a real difference in their clients’ lives.

Criminal matters make up 85 per cent of the cases handled by Legal Aid. The lawyers here celebrate wins such as getting courts to recognize battered-woman syndrome, helping young men steer away from the attraction of gangs, and relieving the wrongfully accused of their sentences.

Soon after beginning my internship at Legal Aid in Cape Town, I became attached at the hip to a High Court lawyer with over 20 years’ experience. While most Candidate Attorneys (South Africa’s articling students) are given only lower-level court cases, I’ve had the opportunity to work on trials and appeals pertaining to murder, gangs, domestic violence, rape, and corruption. My work has consisted of compiling research, consulting with clients, and drafting heads of arguments and plea agreements. I’m in the High Court every week, been able to shake the hands of numerous judges, and visited many prisons around Cape Town.

Legal Aid represents the poor and disadvantaged accused in South Africa. I’ve been deeply affected by my clients’ stories of lifelong poverty, discrimination, and drug abuse. Hearing the same stories over and over, you quickly realize the pattern of systemic discrimination and inescapable cycles the poor and disadvantaged must face.

Walking around the popular areas in Cape Town, one finds it hard to believe that this country is only eight per cent white. Yet, it is not uncommon for a black accused to be standing before a panel of white judges, often represented by another white man as his lawyer.

This experience has been an immensely valuable opportunity for me professionally, as well as personally. Living abroad challenges you to accept new norms, and promotes a greater understanding of other cultures – much more than you achieve by travelling through as a tourist. I would encourage any young lawyer looking for a unique and mind-opening experience to apply for the YLIP program.

Jordan Lacroix is a law graduate who expects to be called to the bar in 2020