ZELDA VENTER – 29 Jun 2020
IN the wake of a legal battle between 103 law firms whose contracts as in-house attorneys for the Road Accident Fund (RAF) the entity is trying to terminate, it is also trying to find a way to streamline its business, while saving costs.
The Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, recently ruled on various applications in which the attorneys tried to overturn the decision by the fund to no longer use an in-house panel to act on its behalf against the public.
In the latest judgment, Judge Wendy Hughes ordered that the RAF retain the services of its panel of attorneys for at least the next six months – to safeguard the rights of those embroiled in legal proceedings against the RAF.
The RAF subsequently unsuccessfully applied for leave to appeal against this judgment. It stated at least 19 grounds on which it felt leave to appeal should be granted, but Judge Hughes turned it down.
Subsequent to this, most if not all plaintiff attorneys (those appearing for the public against the fund) based in Gauteng recently received an invitation from the RAF to attend a webinar meeting to discuss its new business model. The attorneys described this as a historical event as it was the first time in recent history that RAF management, spearheaded by acting chief executive Collins Letsoalo, invited them to share thoughts and strategic plans.
The new strategy involves a step-by-step introduction of measures to limit costs and improve efficiency and service delivery to road accident victims.
The attorneys said the first step in ensuring the success of the RAF’s new direction was aimed at tearing down the “adversarial” divide between plaintiff attorneys and the RAF and to rather work towards a common goal – being to serve the public.
The main reason voiced by the RAF in its bid to no longer use the in-house panel to defend cases against it by the public was to save the millions it had to pay in legal fees. It is said that only about 1% of all defended RAF matters had actually gone on trial.
The RAF is of the opinion that where possible it should rather settle claims to save costs.
This new strategy will see the RAF recruiting personnel who would focus on expediting and finalising the claims backlog on a three-year project that would allow current staff to focus on newly lodged claims in an effort to try to settle them within 120 days.
The RAF is also considering the introduction of a single panel of experts that would curtail the unnecessary duplication of medico legal and related expenses.
The plaintiff attorneys also engaged the RAF’s initiative to “block-settle” matters – even defended matters capable of being settled. Details were also exchanged with the attorneys about the fact that the RAF is not fully functional under the lockdown regulations.
Letsoalo told the attorneys that the RAF was engaging Treasury in an effort to address its financial demands – also the impact of the lack of fuel levy revenue due to the impact of Covid-19.
The RAF is also considering changing certain provisions of the legislation to make it more efficient and possibly more sustainable.
The attorneys were requested to assist the RAF as far as possible in the transition process and to make suggestions that could optimise and streamline the new approach to litigation and the claim process.
Attorney Gert Nel of Gert Nel Incorporated said the RAF’s new direction did not mean that the plaintiff would lose any existing rights to approach the court for relief. “It does, however, offer the unique opportunity to lawyers to contribute to a more efficient and sustainable fund that could quite possibly render the complete overhaul of the compensation system, as envisaged by the highly-criticised Road Accident Benefit Scheme, obsolete.”