During the long years of apartheid, anyone who tried to establish an organisation in the UK whose objectives were to promote fellowship and good understanding between the legal professions in South Africa and the UK would have been considered a fool or an optimist.
Following the election of the ANC government, however, it soon became evident that the enormous store of goodwill towards the new administration could be tapped to establish just such an organisation.
The British South African Law Association (BSALA) was founded two years ago. Membership of the group is open to anyone in the UK legal profession, including trainee solicitors and pupil barristers.
In post-apartheid South Africa, many of the larger City of London firms have established South African business groups. An organisation such as the BSALA offers many of the benefits of such groups to smaller firms as well as to members of the Bar.
The group's aims include the development of closer relationships with practices and advocates in South Africa in the hope that this contact will lead to a regular exchange of work.
The BSALA has a sister South African organisation, the South African British Law Association (SABLA). Its chairman, Eberhard Bertelsmann SC, is a leading human rights lawyer.
The BSALA and the SABLA have already co-operated on an ambitious programme of one-day seminars in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town last February. With the benefit of a grant from the Overseas Development Administration, seminars were held which were aimed at newly-qualified South African lawyers. They covered advocacy techniques, and issues of practice development, client care and interviewing techniques.
More than 400 lawyers attended. Highlights of the seminars included a demonstration of advocacy training skills by Michael Sherrard QC and an explanation by Catherine Bond, of Bond Solon Training, of how courtroom procedures can be de-mystified for witnesses.
The BSALA committee appreciates that many South African practitioners, particularly solicitors from smaller firms, will have had little contact with overseas lawyers. It therefore intends to look into the possibility of organising a programme of events in London and elsewhere in the UK, through which SABLA members can be exposed to British legal institutions and meet lawyers with whom they may be able to do business.
A disappointing feature of the South African legal profession is the extent to which black people are under-represented. A major factor contributing to the continuation of this imbalance is the difficulty black law graduates have in obtaining articles.
The largest single trainer of candidate attorneys is an independent non-profit law centre, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC). The BSALA supports the LRC's candidate attorney scheme, for which it raises funds. Employment with the LRC qualifies as the equivalent of service in articles. Profits from a number of BSALA functions, as well as the proceeds of a direct appeal, have been given to the LRC for its candidate attorney programme.
The BSALA would like to have an increased and active membership and wants to provide its members with a full and interesting programme. Highlights of previous programmes include a talk on the future of press freedom in South Africa by Benjy Pogrund, former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, and a social function at the South African High Commission at which Sydney Kentridge QC talked about the first 18 months of the South African Constitutional Court.
The organisation has also received support from the South African High Commissioner and from Lord Hoffmann.
The BSALA hopes to establish a dialogue between lawyers in the two countries which might not otherwise take place. At the same time it wants to provide the opportunity for lawyers from both sides of the profession in the UK to meet on occasions of interest.
Michael Polonsky is a partner at Paisner & Co and chairman of the BSALA. For further information about the organisation, contact the membership secretary, George Gardiner, at Tarlo Lyons on 0171 405 2000.