From tenant issues to test cases: Interning in South Africa

Maria Sokolva

By Maria Sokolova

I was very excited to participate in the CBA YLIP internship at the Legal Resources Centre in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), South Africa. It presented a great opportunity to develop my experience in the practise of social and economic rights.

My time at the LRC has been invaluable both personally and professionally. Professionally, I have had the opportunity to be involved in some very exciting and groundbreaking work. South Africa has a very progressive – but still also fairly young – constitution, which borrows from Canada’s and at the same time goes further. The LRC aims to use it to transform South African society for the better. The LRC lawyers are experts in socio-economic rights. Trying to apply familiar constitutional principles to a different social context while also harmonizing them with unfamiliar ones is a fascinating stress test which has challenged my entrenched assumptions about the relationship between citizens and the state.

The LRC strives to improve the lives of those who have previously suffered injustices. They achieve this by providing two types of services: First, they have a legal clinic to assist individual clients with a variety of issues. Second, they bring test cases to tackle broader systemic problems. I’ve helped walk-in clients with issues such as landlord-tenant matters, consumer protection issues, immigration issues and others. I have also had the opportunity to assist with some of the bigger cases. The LRC office in Makhanda does many cases concerning the right to education and I have been involved with constitutional challenges to a lack of public transport for schoolchildren in remote villages and the provision of water and sanitation services to schools. I’ve also worked on cases concerning the right to housing and land, and a few fascinating general public-interest cases such as trying to advocate for a person deceased from HIV/AIDS whose life insurance policy beneficiaries were unfairly denied the payout, and trying to help a debtor who was still being pursued by creditors after having paid an amount equal to almost ten times the original debt, due to inadequate regulations about debt collection.  

Personally, it has been a wonderful experience. One could not ask for better colleagues at the office. I have felt accepted and useful. Plus we have tea three times a day and it’s my favourite drink! People have gone out of their way to show me around town and help me get settled. While I’ve had to adjust to being in South Africa, every day presents something new. It will be an experience to remember forever.

Maria Sokolova was called to the bar in British Columbia in 2013