Lawyers tired of struggling with master’s office


Ella Morrison, GroundUp

Lawyers complain that the office of the master of the High Court is increasingly dysfunctional; as a result, it sometimes takes years to settle estates, liquidate trusts or even just appoint trustees for trusts.

The master’s office also handles the Guardianship Fund, which manages the financial affairs of those people who are legally incapable of looking after their own affairs, such as children or people with mental disorders.

According to a lawyer from Cape Town, who spoke to GroundUp on condition of anonymity, the wheels began to fall off during the Covid-19 pandemic. GroundUp has seen photos allegedly taken inside the master’s office in Johannesburg, which show papers strewn across carpets and desks. According to lawyers, it is impossible to gauge the office. Some documents are issued within weeks, others only after months.

Ronel van Rooyen, a lawyer from Pretoria, says the office does not respond to e-mails or calls and members of the public do not get hold of anyone if they show up at the office in person. “No one takes control of affairs there.”

Another Cape lawyer, who also wished to remain anonymous, says that when a deceased’s estate is liquidated, documents are submitted to the master’s office. A letter of executorship must then be issued within 21 days. Without this letter, the assets remain frozen.

“It is a very simple process. The documents just have to be processed, but now the applicant has to go and follow them up there six to ten times in person before this is done.” He says it can sometimes take up to a year to get such a letter from the master’s office.

According to Brenton Ellis of the fiduciary institute of South Africa (Fisa), 15 steps are needed to settle an estate and it should only take between six and eight months. “But this timeline is highly unlikely.”

Katherine Gascoigne, a lawyer from Johannesburg who regularly works with the master’s office, says that this office has control over millions of rands. “This money cannot be plowed back into the economy because heirs cannot access their money. The ripple effect is enormous.”

She says her firm has applied so many times for an order from the court for the office to do its work that it has now almost become protocol.

Poor digitization

The master’s office is currently in the process of speeding up its systems through digitization. In March, the master’s office in Gauteng took more than a decade’s worth of files from the office to scan in and thus gain easier access to them. “We were initially told that we would have no access to these files for six weeks. Now, many months later, we still don’t have access,” says Gascoigne.

She says the online service portal is also powerful. “We cannot get access to any documents and there is no directive about whether we have been approved and what the next steps are.”

Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice, launched a new online platform a week ago, on which members of the public can themselves register a deceased’s estate. However, one of the Cape lawyers is skeptical as to whether this is a workable solution to the backlog. “Workers from the master’s office are still going to have to process the documents and check every dear document.”

In addition, the online system has been targeted by hackers three times in the past three years and millions of rands have been stolen. During each attack, services were disrupted for weeks. According to the information regulator, the attack could have been prevented in 2021, if the Department of Justice had renewed their anti-virus software. The department was consequently fined R5 million for breaching the Act on the Protection of Private Information (Popia).

At the time, the department backed off by saying they were in the process of renewing the software, but that the process was taking longer than they thought.

Lawyers with whom GroundUp spoke say that all the master’s offices, apart from the one in Pretoria, do not work when there is load shedding. However, according to Chrispin Phiri, spokesperson for the department, the new online portal will always be accessible to members of the public.

“There may well be a few hours delay in response from the master’s office, if the office does not have backup power and therefore cannot log into the system.”

Chronic shortage of manpower

While the master’s office mostly only provides an in-person service, there is apparently a nationwide shortage of assistant masters who sign off on files and give members of the public guidance on what to do. According to Fisa, 35% of posts at the master’s office in Cape Town are currently vacant.

Francois Bouwer, a lawyer from Pretoria, also says that there is no one in charge of the office in Pretoria. “The role of acting chief is currently rotated among staff every few months. We have had cases where an assistant will issue a document that is not in accordance with the head master’s guidelines. They act according to their own judgment.”

Another problem, says Bouwer, is that some staff members at the master’s office do not always accept printed copies of a court document. “We get court orders electronically and then print them out to submit to the master’s office. Some assistants do not accept these court orders, as they do not contain the original stamp of the court or have been signed by the registrar. Now we have to go to court to get a signed statement for every dear document we hand in.”

Bouwer says this is not required by any law or directive from the head master.

Gascoigne says the Johannesburg Bar Association has already offered to help the master’s office clear up the backlog, but this has been turned down. She suspects it’s because staff from the master’s office are paid overtime to clear up the backlog.

Van Rooyen says that due to the flawed way in which files are filed, it is also almost impossible to track anything down.

“Older files are a nightmare. We have had cases where we have waited years for a file.”

One of the lawyers in Cape Town says things started to go wrong during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Many of the files were misused and consequently lost. In many cases, people had to submit a lot of information from scratch.”

Lamola already said in August 2022 that the backlog due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the cyber attack in 2021, would be cleared by the end of 2022.

GroundUp has been trying to get comment on the above allegations from the master’s office since October 11. Apart from a reply by an assistant that the questions were sent to the acting head master, the news service did not receive any response to repeated emails.

This is a shortened version of an article that was posted on GroundUp. Read the original post here.