The legal profession in South Africa offers a variety of career possibilities to the person interested in this field. Before embarking on this career it is, however, necessary to understand the academic requirements and nature of the work of the different legal practitioners.
The practising legal professions are divided into two branches, namely attorneys and advocates. An attorney is the person with whom one first makes contact when seeking legal advice. Advocates have specialised expertise in various areas of the law, especially in the presentation of cases in court.
Attorneys handle a large variety of affairs for individuals, companies and associations. There are attorneys who specialise in either commercial or criminal cases, or who focus on litigation, estate planning or tax-related matters. By taking further examinations, an attorney may qualify as a conveyancer and/or public notary.
Advocates are experts in the art of presenting and arguing cases in court. At present, only advocates may present cases or appear in the higher courts and in the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein. Advocates also give legal advice and help with the drafting of legal documents.
Legal Advisers: the term “legal adviser” is used to describe lawyers employed by big companies and other organisations to provide legal advice and services to the company and its employees.
Public prosecutors are employed by the Department of Justice to act as prosecutor, on behalf of the State, in criminal cases in the magistrate’s court. A high percentage of a public prosecutor’s work takes place in court.
State advocates are also employed by the Department of Justice. They appear in the Supreme Court on behalf of the State in criminal trials and their duties and responsibilities are basically the same as those of the public prosecutor. The only difference in their work is that state advocates appear mainly in the Supreme Court and, occasionally for important cases, in Magistrates’ Courts. They also handle criminal appeals in the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein.
State Attorney: The State Attorney’s Division of the Department of Justice functions very much like an ordinary firm of attorneys, except that its clients are the different departments of the government and not private individuals. The state attorney’s major function is to protect the interests of the State by acting for all government departments and administrations in civil cases and for officials sued in their official capacity. When the State buys or sells property, the State Attorney is concerned with the contractual aspects and therefore, conveyancers in the State Attorney’s Office undertake the preparation of deeds of transfer and bonds.
Magistrates hear criminal cases in District Courts. They listen to all the evidence and arguments of the State and the defence of the accused person and then pronounce judgement. When an accused person is convicted, it is also the duty of a magistrate to impose an appropriate sentence. Magistrates may hear any criminal case except for murder, rape or certain other cases, which are heard in the regional court at the request of the Attorney General. In order to qualify as a magistrate an LLB degree is needed.
Civil Magistrates hear civil cases. These magistrates also preside over applications and motions. A civil magistrate may hear cases with a claim value of up to a certain limit.
Regional Magistrates adjudicate criminal cases in regional courts. Cases such as murder and rape, as well as other serious cases such as armed robbery, are heard in regional courts. Regional magistrates can impose more severe sentences than district magistrates. Regional magistrates undergo a selection process and must have an LLB degree
Senior Civil Magistrate: senior civil magistrates do the same work as civil magistrates. However, senior civil magistrates may hear cases with a claim value of up to a higher level. An LLB degree is required in order to qualify for selection as a senior civil magistrate.
Family Magistrates hear all cases concerning families. This includes divorce cases in particular. An LLB degree is required in order to qualify as a family magistrate.
The Minister of Justice, on the recommendation of the Magistrates’ Commission, appoints all magistrates.
State Law Adviser: The State Law Advisers Division of the Department of Justice consists of a group of qualified and versatile lawyers who have usually already made their mark as state advocates. These advocates are excellent legal researchers who provide the State with legal advice and are entrusted with the drafting and revision of legislation (laws).
Registrar of the Supreme Court: Registrars can also be described as the “Secretaries” of the Supreme Court. They ensure that everything runs smoothly in court. There is a registrar at each of the Supreme Courts and Appeal Courts. The functions of registrars are mainly administrative.