Towards a sustainable and effective Community Advice Office sector in South Africa: A Cost Benefit and Qualitative Analysis

1. Despite advances in access to legal services, barriers continue to persist in democratic South Africa. These barriers furthermore are strongly associated with poverty, location, gender and education levels.

The South African Government, in terms of the Constitution as well as under various international instruments, has an obligation to ensure access to justice for all citizens, as a basic human right. However, many communities, and particularly rural communities, do not have access to legal advice as a result of cost, ignorance of the existence of state equivalent centers, a fear of engaging the legal aid system, and the distances they have to travel to get to such centers. In addition, in poor and/or rural communities served by Community Advice Offices (CAOs), many potential social service beneficiaries are unaware of their eligibility for social benefits, or are daunted by the administrative requirements involved in applying for them.

South Africa has a community-based CAO sector which goes back into the 1980s, and which provides first stop or ‘early action’ paralegal services as well as a range of other advice and assistance functions. This sector, however, is ailing, primarily as the result of financing challenges, and there are clear prima facie reasons to consider the possibility of full or part fiscal funding of CAOs as a means of enhancing access to justice as well as increasing social welfare in a long-term sustainable manner.

The objective of the study is accordingly to provide credible, evidence-based arguments to inform the policy debate around public funding of CAOs in South Africa. Three fundamental research components are included: a desk-based review of the development of the CAO sector, a comprehensive fieldwork based qualitative and quantitative analysis of the current role and challenges of existing CAOs in South Africa, and a cost-benefit analysis which considers the economic argument in favour of core funding, by the state of South African CAOs.

2. The Desk-based Review conceptualizes CAOs as small, non-profit organisations that offer free basic legal and human rights information, advice and services to people who are marginalised through poverty, social circumstances and geographical location. They are non-partisan and non–political in their operation. CAOs deliver their services with limited funding, where necessary by pooling community resources and staff labour and time capacity.

Some challenges CAOs face may be regarded as inherent to the scope of their potential functions and the complexity of community needs they seek to respond to. Others, however, are rooted in structural dynamics which are in principle addressable. In the literature the challenge of funding appears as the main challenge which plagues the CAO sector currently. Other challenges include the absence of formal regulation, service standardization, adequate acknowledgement, and, as a result, uneven service provision in some instances.

The funding challenge generates a range of problems not only for the sustainability of the sector, many of which relate to human resource capacity, including the inability of the sector to retain staff once they have received some basic training and work experience in the community context.

3. The Fieldwork took place in mid-2014 and entailed visits to 19 CAO offices in 5 provinces, Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo and Western Cape. At each CAO, key individuals were interviewed, focus group discussions were conducted with CAO staff, and service users were interviewed. In addition, the field work included focus group discussions with the CAO Provincial Fora of each of the 5 selected provinces. The results of this field work fed into the cost-benefit analysis, but have considerable additional worth as a rich picture into the nature of the sector and its users currently.

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Author(s): Florencia Belvedere | Ezekiel Mogodi | Zaid Kimmie

Published/Prepared by: HSRC; NADCAO; SGS Consulting

Author Category: Other relevant resources



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