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History of the UP Law Clinic

Law clinics worldwide have a rich and telling history, and the UP Law Clinic, founded in 1980, is no exception. An understanding of law clinics in general, and of the UP Law Clinic in particular, allows one a glimpse into the progress made over decades to improve access to justice and legal education.

At the University of Pretoria, students began organising to form a clinic at the beginning of 1980. In response, the Faculty Board of the Faculty of Law instructed Dr (later Professor) HP (Henning) Viljoen in July 1980 to investigate the viability and desirability of founding a legal aid clinic.

Viljoen found that some months earlier, a group of 13 idealistic and enthusiastic law students under the leadership of an LLB student, Gys Rautenbach, had in fact started a "legal aid clinic" in Eersterust, a so-called “Coloured” township, east of Pretoria. On the 28th of May they started advising clients from offices provided to them free of charge by the Child and Family Welfare Organisation (Rautenbach himself had in fact been giving advice to people from a classroom at a local school since the end of 1979).

The clinic Viljoen described in his report to the Faculty Board bore very little resemblance to the present Law Clinic, save for its commitment to pro bono work. This clinic functioned on a limited scale (one night per week for two hours). Legal aid was restricted to providing advice and referring people to the Legal Aid Board. Supervision by a few law lecturers was not organised and was on a very informal basis.

The clinic was affiliated with UPSOK, the welfare organisation of the University of Pretoria, and was therefore entitled to a small grant from UPSOK. Viljoen expressed his concerns regarding the sustainability of the clinic and the quality of the legal advice given. He suggested that the clinic be structured and that members of faculty become involved in an organised way.

His recommendation that the clinic be constituted was accepted “in principle” at a Faculty Board Meeting on the 20th of September 1980. A committee consisting of Viljoen as convenor, the dean, Prof DH Botha, and Mr (later Prof) FE (Frans) van der Merwe were appointed. A constitution for the law clinic was drafted and adopted in 1981, and a student management committee was elected from student volunteers. In terms of the constitution, any student who had passed Roman Dutch Law II, as well as any full-time lecturer, could become members of the clinic.