Work by CAOs provides enormous benefits to vulnerable communities and to the justice sector as a whole. The grassroots location, skills, institutional capacity and credibility of the national network of CAOs is an undervalued national asset which if correctly leveraged, can make a significant improvement in the quality of life of poor communities in South Africa. Investment in the CAO sector by government, donors and the private sector, would be an effective national, provincial and local strategy to directly address poverty and promote human rights and democracy in South Africa.
CAOs represent a paradigmatic shift in the delivery of legal services, similar to the proliferation of rural public health workers in response to the formal medical profession’s inability to meet community health needs. However, funding has been declining for the CAO sector that depends largely on foreign donor support in a context where government has been slow to recognise the CAO sector and has not invested in any substantial way to help sustain it, despite the critical roles played at the frontline of grassroots access to justice for the most vulnerable groups in South Africa.
In response to these and other challenges, a number of donor agencies, including the NDA and Lottery Board have been meeting to find solutions to the challenge of sustaining the sector and to the challenge of getting government to invest. In order to make the case for greater and sustained government investment in a public, private partnership with donors and corporate funding sources, the CAO sector needs an evidence-informed business case that will offer both empirical and qualitative evidence of the added value of the CAO sector to government (with reference to its public service mandate); and to poor, marginalised individuals and communities. A significant constraint in doing this is that very little national baseline data exists.
Support to CAOs as a merit good reflects the importance that society places on equality and social inclusion. The ability of government and other agencies such as Legal Aid South Africa to institutionalize CAOs, the establishment of social contracts between government departments and CAOs and long-term public-private investments in CAOs is crucial for the expansion and sustenance of access to justice at grassroots level. Should CAOs receive the requisite level of sustained support and investment, they will add a significant delivery component in the promotion of access to justice as spelt out in the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development’s (DoJ&CD) Medium Term Policy Framework (2013-2018).
Continue reading below or download the full “Business Case for the Community Advice Office Sector in South Africa Incorporating National Baseline Data” resource.