Go to court

You have the right to go to court to protect your rights. If there is an urgent matter – for example, your water is disconnected without notice and you don’t have money to pay for water, or you are facing an eviction and have nowhere to go – you can try to find a lawyer to help you and if you can’t, you can try to go directly to the court to defend your rights. But, if the matter isn’t urgent, it is often best if you can show that you have first tried other ways to sort out the situation, including complaining to government, attending meetings and the other processes described in this guide.

Your organisation should find out what legal resources exist in your community, whether you are planning legal action or not. You can also contact some of the organisations listed at the back of this guide.
There are a number of ways in which your organisation can try to find a lawyer – you can contact the Legal Aid Board, the Law Society of South Africa, a body such as the South African Human Rights Commission, or a legal NGO or advice office. See the list of organisations that could assist in the side column.

Going to court without a lawyer
If you are unable to find a lawyer and you need to represent yourself in court, the following tips might help.

  • Bring all your evidence to court on the date of your hearing, including the people who will speak on your behalf and any papers you want the judge to see, such as bills and evidence of having paid them or evidence that you cannot afford to pay for housing or services, promises that were made to you by the government etc.
  • Introduce yourself to the court and tell the judge what you want him or her to do for you. The judge will make an order at the end of the case so don’t forget to explain what your community sees as the solution. This is called a remedy.
  • You will be given a chance to ask questions to the other side in the case, or their witnesses, so be ready to ask them to give information to the judge that could help you.

The benefits and risks of going to court 
Going to court has resulted in a number of important victories for communities, as well as some setbacks. It is one important way of compelling local government to respect and give effect to your Constitutional rights. However, litigation can also have some risks:

  • Legal proceedings are very demanding of your time and capacity. It is important to make sure that legal action strengthens and empowers community organisation, rather than distracting from it.
  • Legal documentation and arguments sometimes appear complex. They are usually in English and can be difficult for all members of the community to understand. Building legal literacy, an understanding of the law, is a vital part of organisation building.
  • Legal action requires detailed attention to dates, times and records of correspondence and meetings. 
  • Legal action can be very expensive, but some lawyers will work for free. Don’t be afraid to ask!
  • Sometimes cases may be lost for technical or procedural reasons that have nothing to do with the real issues or the merit of the case. Again, it is essential that you always pay attention to detail.

Litigation on its own can never resolve all of our challenges. If it is approached the wrong way your organisation can be diverted and demobilised by having to devote time and resources to preparing statements, affidavits and attending meetings. But this process can also be empowering if everyone is involved.