FURIOUS exchanges can be expected later this month when Parliament’s justice committee holds public hearings on the controversial Legal Practice Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in May last year.

Most significantly, the late former chief justice Arthur Chaskalson criticised provisions of the bill, which he said allowed the executive to interfere in the independent functioning of the legal profession.

Last year, in a speech in Cape Town, he warned that an independent judiciary as per the constitution could not be achieved without an independent legal profession.

The bill provides for the creation of a council for the legal profession that can be dissolved by the justice minister; for the creation of a legal profession ombudsman appointed by the president; compulsory community service for newly qualified as well as serving attorneys and advocates; and the determination of legal fees in terms of the bill.

Justice committee chairman Luwellyn Landers has announced that public hearings on the bill will be held on February 19 and 20. "Stakeholders and interested people who have already made written submissions and those who wish to make supplementary submissions are invited to do so. Stakeholders and people who have not made written submissions are invited to do so by Tuesday (February 12 2013)," Mr Landers said.

"Submissions and inquiries must be directed to the justice and constitutional development portfolio committee; copies of the bill may be obtained from Mr V Ramaano."

Judge Chaskalson said: "The ombud and the minister are both appointed by the president, which means members of the executive have significant powers to control important aspects of the functioning of the legal profession.

"A structure is being proposed which opens the door to important aspects of the profession being controlled by the executive, and that is inconsistent with an independent legal profession.

"One of the lessons of history is that rights are vulnerable, and when governments come under stress there is a temptation for them to brush rights aside, in order to secure their goals and entrench their power. That is why democratic legal orders have checks and balances to guard against this.... An independent judiciary and an independent legal profession are vital parts of these checks and balances."