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Advocate Teffo's conduct in Senzo Meyiwa trial shameful, say colleagues

15 July 2022 - 14:48
Advocate Malesela Teffo in court. Legal experts are questioning his behaviour in the Senzo Meyiwa trial, with one suggesting he was in some instances in contempt of court. File photo.
Advocate Malesela Teffo in court. Legal experts are questioning his behaviour in the Senzo Meyiwa trial, with one suggesting he was in some instances in contempt of court. File photo.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Unethical: that is how advocate Malesela Teffo’s dramatic withdrawal from the Senzo Meyiwa murder trial has been described by people in the legal fraternity.

“I am concerned about his conduct from a strictly personal point of view,” said law expert Dr Llewellyn Curlewis.

“It seems unethical. It seems he was not equipped to do what he is doing on criminal procedure. He might be guilty of contempt of court in many instances.”

Earlier this week, in the middle of court proceedings, Teffo decided to withdraw as defence counsel for four of five men accused of killing Meyiwa, the soccer star who was gunned down in October 2014.

After giving the judge a piece of his mind in the Pretoria high court, Teffo, a cop-turned-advocate who was known in legal circles as a labour lawyer who often took on cases of his former police colleagues, packed his belongings and strutted out of court.

His move did not only leave the court gallery stunned but his clients as well.

Teffo withdrew from the case shortly after judge Tshifhiwa Maumela refused to entertain a complaint about prison conditions by one of his clients.

“I can no longer continue in this court based on the harassment I am receiving, both from the state and from the court,” Teffo said.

He said he was being prevented from being part of the trial because he was regarded as a problematic advocate, adding that his arrest in April in court had been part of a plan hatched in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office to remove him from representing the accused.

His arrest was based on a separate case in which Teffo was an accused. After his public arrest Teffo did not mention Ramaphosa but instead said police minister Bheki Cele was the mastermind behind it. Cele and Ramaphosa have both denied his claims.

Signalling his exit from court, Teffo this week told Maumela: “The reason I can no longer be able to be in court and face you is that there are serious allegations here where you are accused number one.”

This was not the first time Teffo had acted out of the ordinary in a court of law.

Earlier this year, the Sunday Times reported on how one judge had found his court conduct unbearable. The judge, Winston Msimeki, labelled Teffo “disrespectful, unprofessional and contemptuous”.

Things had allegedly got so bad in the matter before Msimeki, in which Teffo was representing two men charged alongside Czech fugitive, Radovan Krejcir, that Msimeki penned a judgment on March 22 this year officially throwing him off the case.

Msimeki’s 23-page judgment made shocking revelations about how Teffo has disrespected him in court, even going as far as telling Msimeki he was “not a sober judge” and was “73 years old and ought to have retired at 70 instead of remaining in court carrying a political mandate without a case”.

Listing a range of other allegations — including when Teffo missed court dates because he was in jail, threatening the prosecutor in court and addressing Msimeki by his surname instead of “your lordship” — Msimeki said: “I, in my entire career as a judge or attorney, never experienced nor saw what Mr Teffo was doing in court.”

As in the Meyiwa trial, Teffo had somehow been of the impression the state was gunning for him, with Msimeki saying: “[Teffo] said the gloves were off between him and the state and that the relationship between them had broken down irretrievably.”

Now that he has withdrawn, hopefully new counsel who know the law and procedures will familiarise themselves with the case and defend the accused
Legal expert Dr Llewellyn Curlewis

Similar to the fight he has put up in the Meyiwa case, Teffo had tried to petition for his clients to be moved from one prison to one closer to where their case was being heard, saying they were “no longer teenagers” and were being strained by the trips from Zonderwater and Modderbee prisons.

Msimeki further alleged Teffo had said the judge could report him to whomever he wished and nothing would happen to him.

“What Mr Teffo further said merely confirmed he is disrespectful, unprofessional and contemptuous,” Msimeki said.

Referring to Teffo’s conduct in the Meyiwa trial, Curlewis said anyone who was unhappy with Teffo could refer a complaint to the Legal Practice Council (LPC) to investigate. The LPC cannot initiate its own investigation into his conduct.

Curlewis said Teffo’s interaction with his colleagues in the Meyiwa trial was unacceptable in a court of law.

He said the code of conduct for legal practitioners was strict on how one interacted with colleagues. The code, gazetted in 2019, states that legal practitioners shall deal with the judicial officer, court staff and all other persons in court with civility and respect.

Curlewis said he was surprised the judge had not stopped some of the applications brought by Teffo while the other counsel was conducting her cross-examination.

“I am surprised the judge allowed him to bring irregular and unheard-of applications before the court. Now that he has withdrawn, hopefully new counsel who know the law and procedures will familiarise themselves with the case and defend the accused.”

Another legal expert, Zola Majavu, said it was extremely unusual for defence counsel to withdraw in the manner Teffo had.

Speaking to eNCA earlier in the week, Majavu said it was not unusual for defence advocates to withdraw as a result of the breakdown in the relationship of trust between a client and advocate or for reasons of ethical considerations.

“It sounds to me like someone who is not properly schooled in the rules of procedure or who simply cannot accept that as lawyers decisions do not necessarily go our clients’ way,” Majavu said.

What my colleague did was unacceptable, inexcusable and not in our name as defence counsel. There was no basis for the rant that we saw
Legal expert Zola Majavu

Majavu said accusing a sitting judge of being an accused No 1 in some undefined conspiracy theory was in poor taste.

“What my colleague did was unacceptable, inexcusable and not in our name as defence counsel. There was no basis for the rant that we saw,” Majavu said.

Other legal practitioners have also expressed concern at Teffo’s conduct.

Advocate Gerrie Nel, who has a watching brief for some members of the Meyiwa family, said in an interview it had been unbearable to sit through proceedings while Teffo addressed the court.

“What happened in court irritated me to such an extent I had to leave,” Nel said, adding that he had chosen to rather follow the proceedings through the media.

He said he believed in the decorum of the court and in showing respect to  judges and hoped that society did not buy into the idea that such scenes played out in the courts regularly.

Taking to his Twitter account after Tuesday’s proceedings, Teffo summed up his court drama with the message: “Cry our beloved country ... our justice system is like a circus.”

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