Hot on the heels of a landmark victory in the Constitutional Court last week, which changed and clarified the law in relation to emoluments attachment orders (EAOs), Webber Wentzel’s Odette Geldenhuys has been named the 2016 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year by the International Bar Association (IBA). Odette received the award at a ceremony held in Washington DC on Monday, 19 September 2016 and is the first lawyer on the African continent to ever be bestowed with the title by the IBA.
The international award is a fitting close to one of the cases that was the basis for Odette’s nomination and also won her the title of ‘Attorney of the Year’ at the 2016 African Legal Awards held in early September. Odette is also founder and director of ProBono.Org, the first public interest law clearing house in South Africa. ProBono.Org aims to increase access to justice via the pro bono services of law firms and advocates, with an emphasis on public interest matters.
Last week’s Constitutional Court ruling in the EAOs case potentially affects about 2.5 million active EAOs, equating to between 10 - 12% of South Africa’s workforce. As a result of this victory, EAOs will no longer be issued by a clerk of the court, but will be granted by a magistrate upon being satisfied that it is just and equitable to do so and that the amount is appropriate. The Constitutional Court also closed a loophole which had been abused by the unscrupulous - the use of clerks in faraway courts to issue these orders. The poor are now assured that only the court closest to where they live or work may issue an EAO against them, thereby ensuring that the debtor can place his or her circumstances before the court. This judgment is likely to have a profound impact on the cycle of debt which has deprived many poor people of their dignity.
“Odette’s work and achievements in the Pro Bono space have been inspirational, impacting South Africans who due to circumstances of poverty and access have been denied the right to justice. At the heart of the matter is a lawyer who has made it her life’s work to contribute towards national efforts to strengthen access to justice. Webber Wentzel’s Pro Bono Practice was established in 2003 to provide free legal services to various organisations and communities in order to strengthen the rule of law and to ensure equal justice for all members of South African society. We are proud to have an attorney of Odette's standing and dedication as part of our team, always acting with such devotion and sensitivity,” says Christo Els, Senior Partner at Webber Wentzel.
Each year, The IBA Pro Bono Award, established in 2010 by the Pro Bono Committee, honours lawyers who have shown an outstanding commitment to pro bono work as part of their legal careers. Following a large number of entries, the judging panel of this year’s IBA award (sponsored by LexisNexis) selected seven nominees of which Odette Geldenhuys was the overall winner. The IBA Pro Bono Award is bestowed annually in recognition of pro bono work that exhibits an exceptional level of commitment and dedication to the provision of free legal services and access to justice. It recognises work, including legislative reform, litigation, and transactional representation, that has brought about a significant impact – to an individual, community, group, or country, or to the provision of pro bono services generally.
On receiving the award in Washington DC, Odette Geldenhuys said: “I am flattered and grateful that my work is being recognised by a prestigious organisation such as the IBA. It has made me reflect on all the beacons along the path that led me here. Caring about the little things keeps things real for me, specifically in the pro bono context that signifies the ‘little person’. It’s about moral consistency and taking the time to stand in the shoes of others and to see it from their perspective. "
“The steadfast support and encouragement that I’ve had from my colleagues at Webber Wentzel has been a lifeline during many tough times. The fact that we have the commitment of one of the largest corporate law firms in Africa to support our pro bono legal work for the poor and the vulnerable, efficiently and professionally, has turned my career into a dream job. I am so humbled at being the first on our continent to receive this international award, and it is my sincere hope that many more will follow, proving without doubt that not only are we a compassionate nation, but one that is also prepared to act for the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised,” Odette concludes.