Written by Zelda Venter | Published in Weekend Pretoria News on 24 June 2023
WHILE the legal fraternity describe the claims process as chaos, the Road Accident Fund (RAF) says order had been restored. The lawyers camped outside Sammy Marks Square for two days this week to try to get a spot to settle RAF claims on behalf of their clients. Attorneys are so upset about the fact there was no structure to the process of block settlements to which they were invited by the RAF, that the Pretoria Attorneys’ Association asked the Legal Practice Council to intervene in the “unfortunate situation”.
In a letter sent to the Legal Practice Council, the association said it had taken note, “with utter dismay, of the indignation that members of the legal profession have had to suffer at the hands of the staff of the RAF this past week”. Attorneys camped out in the cold, as the RAF made it clear they would be assisted on a first-come-first-serve basis. But they said that did not help much, as they were in the street outside the square, only to be called back later. To make matters worse, the office did not open on Monday. This, after hundreds of attorneys were waiting in line, desperate to try to settle claims on behalf of their clients. Many of their clients had been waiting years and are relying on the RAF payments to make ends meet.
When the office did open on Tuesday, most of those who had been camping outside the square since noon on Sunday, were not near the door of the office by closing time. There was also uncertainty about how many law firms and their representatives would be allowed in and how many cases they were allowed to present. While many attorneys were fuming at the “disorganisation”, the RAF was confident all was running well. It said, on Thursday, that order had been restored to the Sammy Marks Square Conference Centre where it was undertaking its block settlements. It said it was compelled to suspend services on Monday after a “cohort of disorderly plaintiff attorneys and/or their proxies refused to comply with instructions to form proper queues”. However, when things resumed on Tuesday, it was plain sailing, they said. “Due to the large number of plaintiff attorneys who have availed themselves during this exercise, a decision was taken by the RAF management to limit settlement consultations to six claims and two representatives per law firm; all in an effort to avoid long waiting times, queues and unnecessary crowds,” RAF spokesperson Linda Rulashe said. She said it was also decided no repeat consultations would be permitted, to ensure all firms were serviced in a fair and equitable manner. Rulashe said in order to accommodate all law firms that had been registered but not yet served, the fund would extend the block settlement exercise by another week. The process will now end on July 7. In its letter to the Legal Practice Council, the Pretoria Attorneys Association said it had noted with concern that individuals were “being deprived of basic human rights due to the chaotic first come first served manner in which the process was conducted”. “Some of these individuals have to date not seen the inside of the venue designated to obtain reasonable compensation for their clients,” the PAA said in the letter sent on Thursday. Outraged attorneys said the purpose of the fund was to compensate road crash victims. The primary source of income for the RAF compensation scheme was a levy raised on fuel. The levy is measured in terms of cents per litre on petrol and diesel fuel and forms part of the general fuel tax regulated by the government.
In May, the cost of the RAF fuel levy per litre stood at R2.18 (increased by nine cents from the previous year). They said with load shedding and generators being used, the RAF should have more money. According to the RAF’s 2020/2021 annual report, its revenue increased to R42.25 billion due to the increase in the fuel levy. The RAF’s legal and other costs decreased from R 4.5bn in 2019/2020 financial year to R1.4bn in the 2020/2021 financial year. Cash expenditure on claims amounted to 84% of the net fuel levy, which the RAF said was due to the “high rate of claims settled”, as managed via the RAF’s “Cash Management Strategy”, an attorney explained. He said in the 2020/2021 financial year, the RAF received 158 313 claims, settled 99 795 and had an outstanding liability of 420 876 claims to be settled. That meant 321 081 claims were not attended to in 2020/2021. “This can hardly be regarded as a ‘high rate of claims being settled’. In fact, the RAF is failing dismally in their statutory obligation to settle,” he said. In April, Parliament’s standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) told the CEO, Collins Letsoalo and the RAF board to “do what is right” and to “please support and defend the people of South Africa”. The attorney said the block settlement offer on the table “is nothing more than a tick box’ exercise in an effort to save face in the eyes of Scopa”. “Practitioners and victims acting in their own name are expected to attend at a venue, with a file that has been running for more than three years, in most instances confronting a claims handler that has had no insight into the matter. These are not ‘block settlements’ but rather a ‘kick for the sideline’ to prolong the settlement process even further,” the attorney said.
He said even if one were lucky enough to receive an offer at a later stage, it was so conservative that practitioners were forced to decline and apply for a court date. “Had the invitation been done in a more structured and professional manner, with a firm commitment to settle, as one would expect from an SOE selling themselves to Parliament as a centre of excellence, one would have appreciated the value of such an exercise,” the attorney said. Pretoria personal injury attorney Gert Nel said it had become time to consider the creation of a designated tribunal for RAF matters, for instance the Labour Court, the Special Court for Income Tax Appeals and the Constitutional Court, that would result in expedited settlements and reduce the court rolls. He said there was no indication from the Constitutional Court on the urgent application filed in December, to attend to the court’s failure to attend to the backlog of trial dates. “Having regard to the serious reduction of settled matters, either at court (due to lack of trial dates) and direct settlements, one would expect that the RAF will step up to the plate and make good on their statutory obligation to settle and pay matters.” Nel said one could only hope Scopa would stand firm and launch a full-scale assessment into the “disdain of public funds as exercised by the leadership of the RAF”