Firm wowed by South Africa trip
John O'Brien Dec. 6, 2006, 6:54am
Forman and Huber saw penguins at Kruger National Park.
South Africa has nearly 1,600 miles of coastline.
CHARLESTON - A recent trip to South Africa, a country crawling out of turmoil, surprised a couple of Charleston attorneys with a few ideas on how to operate a legal system smoothly.
Ironically, one of those ideas was keeping the attorneys out of it as long as possible.
Roger Forman and Jason Huber, partners in the firm Forman and Huber, made the 18-hour flight to South Africa with the group People to People in an effort to learn about the country's employment law, an area of practice in which both deal.
Twelve years out of the segregationist apartheid that ruled the country from 1948-1994 and still cultivating its legal system, South Africa, Forman said, showed that mediation can be extremely effective when dealing with employment cases.
"I like the idea of mediation and arbitration as the first place you have to go, because the lawyers are not permitted in that," Forman said. "And they said 95 percent of the disputes dissolve there.
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?"
In South Africa, any person with an employment complaint such as wrongful termination or unpaid wages gets a chance to dispute it immediately. Forman said no one is fired without just cause, unless it is the result of downsizing.
If the situation is not settled during mediation, the two sides go to Labor Court before a judge, not a jury.
"The employment law, the astonishing thing is it is people-friendly, not business-friendly," Forman said.
Forman and Huber were a part of 30 other lawyers who spent eight days there. Much of the time was spent attending discussions.
Huber said the employment law system that has been created is "flawed in some regards," like the lack of a jury system, though the spirit of the people there helps to overcome that.
"They're just 14 years out of their constitutional convention," Huber said. "There's almost a contagious optimism. That's a thing I want regardless where I work."
Forman agreed, saying that the legal climates in Charleston and South Africa are similar in some ways.
"There's a real sort of sense of cooperation between both sides of labor and business, and I think we have a lot of that too," he said.
"In a place like Charleston, where we litigate against each other, we're pretty agreeable and get down to the real issues.
"We have a lot in common with them, because we have a pretty decent system too. Mediation has changed some of that, but to have an avenue like their mediation really helps."
When they weren't delving into the legal system, the two took in sights like Kruger National Park and the street on which Nelson Mandela lives.
"I think everybody should have the opportunity to go to Cape Town once. It's just gorgeous," Forman said.
Both also returned impressed with the optimism of the country and its ability to put its troubled past behind it. When apartheid ended, those who admitted to wrongdoing were absolved of their crimes.
"There's black empowerment that involves taking back the lands stolen and giving it to the people or compensating for it," Forman said. "It grows out of the way they transferred power. They transferred power peacefully.
"Instead of punishing people, they forgave each other."
That has helped to set up the current country and the legal system Forman and Huber studied.
"It's critical to have a good judicial system," Forman said. "You have to have a constitution, law and rational policy. Without courts, u don't have a sane society because u don't have any final check in the government."
And the people are taking active roles in that final check. Forman said he stopped to watch a pro se case where the litigant was "beating the heck" out of the other side.
"It just gave me a different perspective," Forman added. "I think that the more perspective I have, the more cases I read and the more experiences I have, the better I can be."