20 November 2023
Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola has approved a rescue plan for the Master’s Office. The dysfunction of the Master’s Office has reached a crisis point according to many in the legal fraternity.
GroundUp has previously reported on the chaos at the Master’s Offices across the country.
The Master’s Office is responsible for among other functions the administration of deceased estates, the setting up and liquidating of trusts, and managing the Guardian’s Fund to protect the interests of minors and people deemed legally incapable of administering their affairs.
The rescue plan aims to fix backlogs, improve digitisation, increase capacity, ensure standardisation and transparency, and to stop corruption in offices across the country.
The plan also promises to “promote public and legal community engagement”.
The Deputy Minister met with various stakeholders on 16 November, including the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), which has been very critical of the Master’s Office, to workshop the plan. According to Department of Justice and Correctional Services (DOJ) spokesperson Chrispin Phiri the plan will not be publicly circulated.
The rescue plan aims to increase the number of matters that need to be finalised in four months from 65% (the current annual target) to 80%.
The plan also apparently involves the DOJ introducing information kiosks for members of the public who may not have data to access the deceased estates online registration system.
The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) has been raising the alarm about conditions in the Master’s Office and calling for meetings with the minister since March 2020.
Phiri said the Covid pandemic contributed to the prolonged lack of communication, but the Deputy Minister had recently been assigned to the Master’s Office.
According to the DOJ 2021/22 annual report, letters of appointment and authority were issued within its 14-day deadline roughly 75% of the time.
But the LSSA has questioned the DOJ’s ability to accurately report its own turnaround times. The LSSA says the figures are in “stark contrast” to the experiences of the 38,000 attorneys and candidate attorneys it represents. Instead, very long delays are the norm.
Phiri said the annual report figures are audited by the Auditor General.
Hussan Goga, of the LSSA, told GroundUp that the LSSA asked to analyse the raw data on which this 75% figure was based but were denied access and told to apply through the Protection of Access to Information Act (PAIA).
Phiri said that “is unfortunately how the government works” – any request for internal documents must go through the PAIA process.
Turnaround times for functions such as issuing letters of executorship were changed from 15 to 21 days, Goga believes to make the turnaround statistics look better. But even these altered figures are “inconsistent with the experience of the public and the legal profession”, he said.
The LSSA says it takes six months or longer to get a letter of executorship in most instances.
“The public, including orphans and widows, are unable to access funds which they are entitled to when most needed. This constitutes a clear violation of their human rights,” said the LSSA.
Goga told an October briefing of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee that “liquidation and distribution accounts submitted as far back as 2018, five years ago, have still not been examined”.
He said the Master’s Office’s self-reported turnaround times are inaccurate because many court rolls are congested with Mandamus Applications against the Master’s Office. (A court issues a Mandamus to force a public institution to do its job in the face of unreasonable delays.)
Francois Bouwer, exco member of the Gauteng Attorneys Association heading the Master’s Office Committee, said Mandamus Applications have almost become a matter of protocol in his firm’s dealings with the Master’s Office.
Goga said the “single most important contributor to failures in service delivery in the Master’s Office is the continued use of the Post Office as the only medium of communication”. Documents usually arrive three months after being posted, if they arrive at all, he said.
Goga said phone calls and emails to the Master’s Office usually go unanswered.
“We now have an online registration system for deceased estates,” said Phiri, “which takes away a lot of manual labour from staff. We can now redirect those staff to other things.”
Phiri said the portal is being “piloted” in five provinces as of October.
But Bouwer says in their experience, “Currently, the default position of manual submission is more effective than the new system.”
Goga was sceptical of the new deceased estates portal. He explained that the system only allows people to report documents to receive a letter of executorship or authority. This is only the first of roughly ten steps in wrapping up a deceased estate.
He said even this first step is not fully digitised. According to a recent Chief Master’s directive, valid wills, among other documents, still need to be lodged at the Master’s Office in person .
Letters of executorship are issued for deceased estates larger than R250,000. The Master may appoint a representative to ensure beneficiaries are paid and, in more complicated estates, the Master will appoint an executor of the estate to administer the process, usually a lawyer.
Letters of authority are issued when registering deceased estates worth less than R250,000. Goga says this is probably the case for 85% of estates administered in the country and includes the “most vulnerable members of our society”.
Goga said after a letter of authority is issued (the first step in wrapping up a deceased estate), there is no supervision by the Master and “no follow-ups to see that beneficiaries have received what they are legally entitled to”.
The LSSA submitted to Parliament that it is an “absolute necessity” that an executor be appointed to administer every deceased estate, regardless of size.
Goga told GroundUp the current procedure is wide open to fraud and mismanagement.
Phiri said there is an ongoing investigation by the Special Investigation Unit to get a sense of the scale of the problem. This investigation saw a shutdown and raid of all 15 Master’s Offices in 2020.
He said the new deceased estates’ online system will leave an “audit trail” for every letter of authority issued and the system is linked to Home Affairs.
Goga told GroundUp he has serious concerns about “the integrity of the data stored at Home Affairs”. He said in many instances the death certificates it issues incorrectly reflect the marital status of the deceased. The death certificates must then be amended, which takes months.
The Home Affairs system is also often down, according to legal practitioners, and this delays confirming that a person has actually died.
Bouwer said, “In Gauteng, we however experience that the new system is not working efficiently at all. The IT system of Department of Home Affairs is constantly offline and the personnel of the Master is not properly trained to work on the system.”
In a July 2021 meeting with the Office of the Chief Master, the LSSA called for a consultation process before directives are issued.
A directive is an official policy document which guides government departments on how to apply legislation but does not always have clear statutory authority. The Master’s Office agreed to this but has not done so, according to Goga.
Goga told Parliament that “in some instances, Chief Masters directives are unlawful.” He believes this could easily be prevented if the Master’s Office consulted with legal practitioners, something the rescue plan has promised to increase.
Goga gave the example of a 2017 directive which required an independent trustee to have “no family relation or connection, blood or other, to any of the existing or proposed trustees, beneficiaries or founder of the trust”.
“This is completely beyond the authority of the Master, who is a functionary,” said Goga. “This is a matter for the legislature and not the Chief Master to decide. This has caused absolute chaos with the replacement of trustees and for the issue of letters of authority.”
“A period of over six years has lapsed and there has still been no revised directive on this issue,” he said.