South Africa is a country ridden with social ills, where the vulnerable often need specific protection. An example of such vulnerable groups are children, and our law has specifically made provisions to protect them with the Children’s Act. Society often disregards the fact that the elderly are also a vulnerable group in society due to a range of factors. This necessitates making provision to legally protect the elderly; however, our legal system lacks in this regard. What challenges do the elderly typically face with accessing the law? And how can the legal profession accommodate and service this vulnerable clientele?
Generally speaking, what prevents the elderly in particular from exercising and protecting their rights is a lack of awareness, lack of access to information and insufficient monetary means. A prerequisite of being able to exercise and protect your rights is knowing your rights in the first place. Word of mouth is a powerful tool. Social isolation because of illness and old age, therefore, results in the gap of access to information being widened for the elderly because they are no longer able to socialise and interact at their church groups, bingo socials and family braais for example. This means that they miss out on receiving and exchanging vital information with their peers and others. If and once they have crossed the hurdle of being informed, another challenge presents itself. The law, with its complexities, is often better explained and subsequently better understood after seeking legal advice. This sounds relatively simple to do depending on who you are and who you know; however, factors such as social class, language barriers and education levels often exacerbate an already fragile situation. As mentioned, another challenge the elderly face with accessing the law is a monetary one. The elderly face the economic disadvantage of being retired and no longer earning an income. This precludes them from accessing the often costly legal services they need. With the country’s unemployment rate sitting as high as it is, one may wonder if family and relatives of the elderly would be able to cover these legal expenses on their behalf?
In the same way that Criminal Law exists to deal with criminal matters, and Labour Law handles employee and employer relations, a specific area needs to be developed to service the elderly clientele. Legal systems in various countries have begun developing the area of Elder Law, which encompasses other areas but specifically caters to the elderly. The environment does not officially exist in the South African legal space; however, specific steps can be taken to initialise this development. The government can explore various ways of reaching the elderly in terms of raising awareness and keeping them informed of their rights and where to turn if those rights have been contravened. A legal body similar to Legal Aid can be established to provide pro bono legal services specifically for the elderly. The legislature can look into drafting laws catered to better protect this part of the population. In addition to the above, law firms across the country can develop dedicated departments and teams that service this clientele.
The first step to solving a problem is identifying it. Although it may take some time for the above suggestions to be implemented in order to officiate the field of elder law, not all hope is lost. Speak to a lawyer at SchoemanLaw today to find out how you can best legally protect yourself or your elderly loved ones.
Guest Author: Boithumelo Mohapi (Legal Intern at SchoemanLaw Inc – September 2020)