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In performing their roles as centres for Clinical Legal Education, many University Law Clinics employ real-life or live-client models to facilitate student training. While working under the supervision of professionals, students offer legal assistance to qualifying clients. This promotes access to justice and positions university clinics as crucial enforcers of “poverty law”, an area where legal development aimed at improving the socio-economic situation of the indigent is often restricted by the associated lack of finances and political will to effect real change.
Since their inception university clinics have been active in a wide variety of legal matters. As a (planned or coincidental) consequence of these ad hoc case-by-case interventions, clinics have occasionally been able to contribute to effecting more substantial legal advances.
One example of this has been the work done by the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic in changing the South African legal landscape with regard to emoluments attachment orders (EAOs). These are devices that can be used to enforce debts against non-paying debtors. With South Africa’s socio-economic situation, many people struggle to make ends meet in order to afford basic needs, which has contributed to the creation of an unhealthy, debt-dependent culture. In cases where these debtors who are unable to pay-off loans are employed, judgments for enforcement are soon followed by an EAO which is served on the employer, who then becomes an unwitting agent in the debt collection process.
Deficiencies in legislation and the South African legal system in general allowed unscrupulous creditors to abuse EAOs in order to unlawfully enrich themselves to the moral and civil detriment of society at large. Following many separate individual interventions, the Stellenbosch clinic eventually approached the South African Constitutional Court (University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic & others v Minister of Justice and Correctional Services & Others; Association of Debt Recovery Agents NPC v Clinic & Others; Mavava Trading 279 (Pty) Ltd & Others v Clinic & Others  ZACC 32) in order to challenge the laws which allowed for these abuses.
This presentation will accordingly consider the Stellenbosch EAO-litigation as an example of a meaningful legal advance as a result of law clinic intervention. By considering this example, the presentation aims to highlight what law clinics can do to effectively engage in impact litigation in a resource-constrained environment.