By Tania Broughton
A judge who ruled against dozens of law firms in their bid to force the Road Accident Fund to keep using their services, has scotched claims that he was biased against them.
Pretoria High Court Judge Norman Davis found himself at the centre of a social media storm last month, after making a ruling against 46 firms of attorneys. He was accused of attending a meeting with the Fund in April 2019 where the issue of lawyers using the fund as a “gravy train” was discussed. A call for his recusal was raised by some of the law firms in an application for leave to appeal his ruling which, they said, was a huge blow because their existence relied on serving on the Fund’s panel, established in 2014 to handle litigation.
During the hearing, the Fund had reported that monthly costs were R800 million a month and about R4 billion was paid out every month to claimants. The Fund’s only source of income, the fuel levy, brought in R3.5 billion a month and it owed R19 billion in claims.
The Fund had decided to move away from the “litigious model” of handling claims and was disbanding the panel, intending to settle claims with merit within 120 days, which could result in savings of up to R10 billion.
The Fund asked the attorneys on the panel to hand over some 6,000 files. But the attorneys resisted, and applied for an interdict to stop the cancellation of their contracts ahead of a judicial review of the decision. In a ruling handed down in March, Judge Davis refused.
He said the firms argued that they were only concerned with the wellbeing of the Fund, but “It appears to be more about the retention of their lucrative practices”.
He said the panel attorneys had argued there would be “chaos” in June if the fund were left unrepresented but this was more “illusory than real”. “The real chaos would be if the panel did not hand over their files and as responsible officers of the court, I expect [them to] commence with the already-delayed hand-over.”
Soon after, he received a letter from one firm accusing him of attending the earlier meeting with the Fund and “offering your views which were adverse and prejudicial to the panel attorneys”. Another firm lodged a complaint with Judge President Dunstan Mlambo, requesting that the whole matter be heard again “before another judge”.
Mlambo responded to all that there had been several meetings between judges, the Fund and other interested parties to discuss the strain that fund litigation was putting on the administration of justice. The meeting in question, in April 2019, had been minuted. The issue of the panel attorneys had not been discussed in the presence of the judges, Mlambo said.
In his ruling on the attorneys’ application, made on 30 April and marked “of interest to other judges”, Judge Davis said none of the attorneys had made statements on oath, in spite of challenges to do so. He said the new model had not even been on the cards in April 2019 and, on the attorneys’ own admission, only became an issue in November that year.
“The impression created that I, as Judge, met with one of the parties to the litigation to the exclusion of others is false and devoid of truth, and this was known to them.”
“Any reasonably informed litigant, particularly experienced trial lawyers, could not have formed a reasonable apprehension that the judge was not impartial,” he said, dismissing the application.
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