The functions and differences between state attorneys, state advocates and prosecutors

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13 Oct 2016

This article is specifically targeted at informing those who are currently studying or have completed a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) qualification at any accredited South African University and wish to pursue their legal careers in service of the greater community whilst representing the State.

The field of law is a great calling to use your qualification to assist in the service of your country and its people, whilst upholding the laws of not only your clients but also the country as a whole. Prior to obtaining my LLB degree, I have always appreciated the endless possibilities for those who do not aspire to become legal advisors or have their names in bold print outside a law firm, but rather those legal professionals who strive to protect victims of society against the harsh reality of our country and its crimes.

It is perfectly commendable for an aspiring attorney to not follow the crowd, but rather use his or her law degree to pursue a different aspect of law, attending court every day and trying crimes without fear, favour or prejudice as a public servant in the legal profession.I hope that in writing this article, it will inspire legal students and professionals who have a passion to help people beyond what is expected in terms of the profitability of their career, but rather in terms of a strong desire to better the lives of others through a career with the State.

Before stating the differences between the legal careers offered by the State, it is necessary to mention the personal characteristics that come with this territory of practice. A lawyer for the State would need to be objective, not willing to back down, be able to handle the immense stress of representing pugnacious characters and maintain the trust of his or her clients, all while maintaining the respect of his or her fellow colleagues. Professionalism is the order of the day.

However, the most important characteristic of any prospective lawyer is a well-developed sense of fairness and justice and the willingness to serve the people.

The State Attorney

State attorneys handle a large variety of legal affairs concerning individuals, businesses, associations and Corporations. This includes work in the fields of business and corporate law, civil and criminal litigation, property transactions, taxation and estate planning.

State attorneys act in service of the state and represent the State and State departments in all lawsuits and transactions for and against the State. They work and function in the same way as ordinary attorneys.Examples of work performed by State Attorneys include: urgent applications with regard to gambling and the granting of casino licences;cases involving corruption or probable corruption;Constitutional Court cases and opinions relating to constitutional rights; instructing counsel for court matters;

Specific admission requirements in terms of the Attorneys Act 53 of 1979 include
  • Deemed to be fit and proper (an interview will be scheduled by the appropriate Law Society before registration of articles)
  • Entering into an agreement of candidacy (articles) with a State Attorney or complete your articles at a general law firm and serve the appropriate period as required.
  • The period of your articles will depend on whether you have completed or currently completing your LLB degree.
  • Attend the school for legal practice offered by LEAD SA (Classes are offered part-time and full-time) more information is available on the following website:
  • One can then sit for the Attorneys Board Examination once the above has been completed consisting of four examinations (High Court and Magistrates Court Procedure, Professional Ethics & Bookkeeping for Attorneys) offered twice a year by the Law Society.
  • Once you are an admitted attorney, one can then practice and apply to the state directly for specialisation. Usually you would have to practice for a period between 2-3 years after being admitted before you can apply.

The State Advocate

Advocates are primary experts in the art of presenting and arguing cases in court. The State Advocate acts in the capacity of a “public prosecutor” in a High Court. They are accordingly appointed by the National Prosecuting Authority and are attached to the Office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions.

  • The basic requirement is an LLB degree from any South African university, having achieved this, the next step is to apply to the High Court of the respective jurisdiction to be included on the ‘roll’ of advocates. To do this, an applicant must satisfy the court that he/she is both qualified and able to be a member of the profession.
  • The applicant will then be able to practice as an advocate in South Africa. Once admitted, it is customary to join one of the ‘Bars’ (the representative body of the advocates’ profession).Professional training to become an advocate is provided by the constituent ‘Societies of Advocates’ of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.
  • A period of one year’s apprenticeship (‘pupillage’) including an examination is a pre-requisite to join the Bar, a person will also have to pass the National Bar Examination of the General Council of the Bar, which is a test of the person’s practical ability.
  • During pupilage, a pupil advocate will be paired with an experienced advocate to
  • see how work is carried out in chambers and in the courts, pupilage is a learning experience, not a job, and is unpaid.
  • Once you have been admitted as an advocate depending on the appropriate levels of expertise and experience, one can then apply directly the National Prosecuting Authority for a position as a State Advocate.

The Prosecutor

Public prosecutors act as the gatekeepers of criminal law and attend to the prosecution of cases on behalf of the State in the Magistrates courts. They decide whether or not to prosecute individuals for crimes based on evidence provided to them by the police. Prosecutors present cases in criminal trials and lead evidence by the State witnesses. Over time, experienced prosecutors may be appointed as senior regional and district prosecutors.

Requirements include the following
  • An application must be made for the annual Aspirant Prosecutor Programme by the National Prosecuting Authority, applications normally open in June / July every year, for more information visit their website on:
  • Applicants who are in possession of a South African LLB degree which includes at least the following courses, Law of Evidence, Civil Procedure, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and Interpretation of Statutes or final year LLB students with the aforementioned courses described, provided they would have completed the degree by commencement of the programme.
  • Successful candidates once appointed will undergo a 12 months programme which shall include a formal assessment at the end to determine overall competency to be appointed as a Prosecutor in South African Courts.
  • Prosecutors must conduct prosecutions and attend to all matters incidental thereto and represent the public interest in the criminal justice process.

In respect of the aforementioned fields, an aspiring lawyer should have a genuine passion and motivation to wish to practice for the betterment of society and its people – it is a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together.

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(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)