In recently returning from Pretoria, South Africa having participated in the Commercial Law Training Course, I decided to jot down a few words on my experience. Little did I know I’d be asked to post the first entry to the Irish Rule of Law International blog. Pressure! So here we go………
Myself along with four colleagues – David Barniville SC, Jarlath Ryan BL, Michael Irvine of Matheson Ormsby Prentice and Michael Carrigan of Eugene F.Collins – made the trip to South Africa to provide commercial law training to 29 lawyers from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.
For anyone not familiar with the course, it has been taking place in partnership with the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) since 2002. The course recognises that many lawyers in South Africa are not given the opportunity to improve their knowledge of commercial law. Not only does this prohibit lawyers from taking on commercial work, it prevents them from encouraging others to contribute to the free market economy. The primary aim of the course is to provide lawyers with an opportunity to access the skills necessary to practice in this area. The idea is that these lawyers will in turn be able to advise communities that may not already have exposure to legal expertise in matters of business.
The course is designed to be interactive, with participants encouraged to engage the tutors so that the material is of practical assistance to their individual practices. Throughout the week the participants are required to undertake home exercises which evaluate their drafting skills, workshops and tests which examine the material covered during the week, and a final examination on the last day.
As many of the participants wouldn’t have had exposure to the practice of commercial law outside of their university studies, the week commences with an examination of the various commercial structures which exist such as sole traders, partnerships, close corporations, as well as limited liability companies. Following on from this we examined the steps involved in advising a client on the purchase and sale of a company. In this regard, we reviewed the importance of conducting a proper due diligence exercise, negotiating and drafting a share purchase agreement, deed of tax indemnity and disclosure letter. Over the course of the week we also covered accounting principles, particularly in relation to company accounts. The participants were also taught the importance of proper record keeping, the necessity of directors meetings and annual general meetings. This aspect of the course was conducted through role play, and proved to be a lot funnier than it may sound! Who knew that a room full of lawyers could produce such wonderful actors!
An important element of our training is the merging of international best practice with South African standards and rules on the ground. The success of the course is in part due to the willingness of leading commercial law firms to support the work which we are doing. As such, each day guest speakers were invited to speak to supplement our teaching. The regulation of company law in South Africa is on the cusp of radical change. Professor Anneli Loubser of the University of South Africa provided us all with an excellent overview of the new Companies Amendment Bill 2011 which will reform and codify the existing Companies Act of 1973.
This year, the penultimate day of the course involved a dialogue on international alternative dispute resolution. We were joined by a panel of South African experts who presented on the advantages and disadvantages of engaging in arbitration, mediation and reconciliation, in relation to commercial disputes and otherwise. The core message espoused from the seminar was the importance of truth. While this seems like such a simple concept, it’s something that is not always present in society in general, not to mention commercial negotiations. The importance of recognising the truth of South Africa’s difficult past is crucial to building a better future which will embrace everyone in society, irrespective of race or creed.
The Parchment Ceremony
Apart from the chance to celebrate the end of the course, the ceremony was an opportunity for us all to reflect on what we had learned over the week. From my perspective, I was touched by the enthusiasm with which the participants approached their studies. There was an eagerness to learn and develop their skills. Despite the many obstacles that they face, what struck me most from my time teaching on the course is the hope and the sheer self belief that the participants have in themselves, their profession and South Africa. Above all else, I will take with me a great number of friendships and fond memories from my time with the participants.
The Future is Bright
Michael Irvine and myself had the opportunity to meet and discuss with the Irish Ambassador Mr Brendan Mc Mahon and Cait Moran of Irish Aid IRLI’s vision for the future of the Commercial Law Training Course. We believe that future participants are best served by enrolling in a one year training programme with the University of South Africa. During this year the participants will be continuously assessed and mentored by the LSSA and Irish practitioners through IRLI. A select number of participants will also have the opportunity to be placed with a leading South African mining company Xstrata. We met with two attorneys from Xstrata who are most supportive of our work and look forward to the shared opportunities that the placement will bring. We are hopeful that participants will also have greater opportunity to undertake work placements with leading firms in South Africa and Ireland, and we continue in our endeavours to achieve this.
The future of this project is bright and with it we hope that there will be many more success stories like that of Veronica de Silva.
One last thing. A big thank you to all the participants, all at LSSA, my fellow tutors and of course Irish Aid for their continued support.
By Eithne Lynch, solicitor currently working with TAWLA the Tanzanian Women Lawyers Association in Dar es Salaam.