By Masechaba Modise, Legal Intern
Emily Ruth West is a young, vibrant legal practitioner, practising at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr. She was born in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. She obtained her law degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and relocated to Johannesburg to commence her articles with the firm in 2015. In May 2017 she was admitted as an attorney and is now an associate working in the Trust and Estates department.
The Trust and Estates department specialises in the administration of deceased estates, trust matters, wills and estate planning. As part of their initiative to give back to the community and serve their pro bono hours, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr has practitioners who volunteer at the Master’s Office Help Desk and Emily is one of them.
The Master’s Help Desk is located at the Master of the High Court, Johannesburg and assists destitute and indigent members of the public who need assistance with either reporting and administration of a deceased estate, estate planning and general legal advice pertaining to deceased estates.
Although this is a great avenue for the practitioners, Emily often encounters challenges which are common but not limited to reporting and administering estates worth R250 000 or more and where the only asset in the estate is immovable property, often indebted to the municipality.
The biggest challenge however has been dealing with and advising on deceased estates where she has to explain the non-existent notion of a “family house” and the interpretation of ownership in terms of legislation applicable to the country. More often than not the clients become confused and agitated, especially because most of them do not understand the distinction between the customary context and the legal interpretation of ownership, but as a legal practitioner one has to apply the law as is and allow the client to learn and understand the concepts. As Emily says, “ It’s daunting but someone has to do it, and unfortunately that someone is me sometimes.”
Given its challenges, Emily and the firm generally love to assist with pro bono work as they get to engage with the actual people. The firm predominantly deals with corporate matters, so to have the opportunity to work and help actual people who may not under ordinary circumstances be able to afford such legal services is fulfilling. To quote Emily, “We sit in our comfortable offices in Sandton but once you step out to go and staff the Help Desk you get exposed to a whole different world, where the reality of how many people cannot afford basic legal assistance because of their financial difficulties stares you in the face. That experience on its own is enough to make any practitioner want to assist in any way possible”.
Emily believes that with more initiative from legal practitioners and relevant stakeholders the Administration of Deceased Estates Act can be amended to accommodate the indigent and vulnerable.