A Legal Hotline Provides a Lifeline
When the lock down came towards the end of March, the public interest
legal sector, who work every day to protect the rights of South Africa’s
vulnerable and marginalized populations, knew that this was not time
for them to stop operations.
A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. Instead a group of 12 public legal organizations got together to create a virtual way they could respond to those who would urgently needed legal advice and protection during the stay home order.
A 24-hour hotline, managed by Lawyers for Human Rights, was quickly set up.
A flyer was created and word was spread through social media and partner networks.
Now more than a month in operation, the WhatsApp number provides a life line for many who need help or witness rights violations around them. Staffed by a legal practitioner, each call is screened and after initial advice is given and details taken, the case is referred to the organization most familiar with the issue.
“On average we receive 7-12 calls a day. They can range from evictions, police misconduct, and queries about workers’ rights both in the informal and formal sector,” explains Michael Clement, the Acting Director of Lawyers for Human Rights. “The collaboration, which is a first, has brought together both public interest legal groups as well as private law firms who want to contribute pro bono. The result is not just that we are able to respond to those who need
legal advice and representation but that we can serve as a human rights watch dog and identify trends on what violations are taking place.”
While the lock down was deemed a public health necessity to contain the spread of COVID-19, for those who live without safety nets, and who exist as undocumented workers, refugees or asylum seekers, the fallout has been particularly harsh. Whatever income they had earned has tried up, hunger has set in and survival has become even more desperate. Many of them do not qualify for Government support and the communities where they live, face a heavy presence of police and military. Many have had their bank accounts frozen and others have faced evictions from their homes.
Social Justice in Action
The hotline has received a large number of calls
from people desperate as their landlords threaten to evict them if they fail to pay their rent. While this is illegal under the lock down regulations, for those who are undocumented, the ability to seek recourse can be limited. The same has been true of the ongoing forced removals in informal settlements, where the laws set out to protect the vulnerable are often being thwarted.
While the courts are closed except for essential cases, Michael Clement, sees the need for continued collaboration as the country enters a new stage of phased movement.
“As a sector we still are working to define how we operate and build on this collaboration. It is clear that by working together with other public interest groups and civil society networks we can have a greater influence and be better equipped to deal with the longer term consequences this pandemic has brought,” she said.
With additional funding, the Social Justice Initiative will continue to support LHR and other public interest legal partners to build and grow this initiative and learn from the information gathered during this period.