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How Legal Aid SA averted disaster similar to Life Esidimeni

It did not make national headlines, but Legal Aid SA averted a disaster similar to the Life Esidimeni tragedy in the Eastern Cape.

The body successfully represented the families of 239 frail and handicapped patients who were about to be moved out of the Life Healthcare facility in that province in 2017.

In a landmark case led by Legal Aid SA senior advocate Lilla Crouse, the organisation blocked the Eastern Cape social development department’s plan to relocate patients.

The independent statutory body offers legal aid to those who cannot afford lawyers.

Just as had happened in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape planned to not renew its contract with the Life Healthcare Group and move patients to other service providers, in this case the Algoa and Lorraine frail care centres in Port Elizabeth.

The Frail Care Crisis Coalition Collective, formed by the affected patients’ families, approached Legal Aid SA to help.

This followed an announcement by the department’s MEC, Nancy Sihlwayi, that the Life Healthcare contract would not be renewed.

Crouse won a Port Elizabeth High Court bid to stop the transfers.

“We brought an urgent application to stop this. We could successfully show that, like in Gauteng, there was no real, executable plan and people would die.

“At first, the department vehemently opposed the application, but their opposition fizzled out after the Health Ombudsman’s report on Life Esidimeni was released in February last year.”

She led the Legal Aid SA team that represented the families of 144 mentally ill patients who died and 1 480 survivors of the Gauteng Life Esidimeni fiasco.

“I thoroughly enjoy seeing to it that justice is done. I like assisting the vulnerable, or the so-called underdogs. The rule of law is very important to me,” she told City Press.

She said that during the arbitration hearings into the Gauteng transfers, she thanked Health Ombud Professor Malegapuru Makgoba for his role in saving lives.

“I think he should be singled out for the excellent report which showed neither fear nor favour,” Crouse said.

In the hearing, she asked that each family be awarded compensation to cover the costs of finding their relatives, replacing missing or stolen clothing, counselling and loss of income, and for pain and suffering.

She asked that R1 million be paid into the Guardian’s Fund in the name of each patient who endured the move and survived.

Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke chaired the arbitration hearings. On Monday, he announced that each family would be awarded R1.2 million.

Crouse praised Section 27 and the SA Society of Psychiatrists, especially psychiatrist Dr Mvuyiso Talatala, for trying to prevent the tragedy. Crouse said the arbitration was the result of their efforts.

“Civil society has a huge responsibility to keep our Constitution relevant,” she said.

Crouse grew up in Uitenhage, where she went to Handhaaf Primary School and Hoërskool Brandwag.

She studied a B Juris at Nelson Mandela University and completed her LLB at Stellenbosch University.

She worked for customs and excise while waiting for a position at the department of justice to work off her bursary. She was a prosecutor in Wynberg, Cape Town, for several years.

She did her pupillage at the Port Elizabeth Society of Advocates and started her practice at the Port Elizabeth Bar.

She joined Legal Aid SA 13 years ago to “serve the poor and vulnerable people and for the sake of my family, to not have to work 18 hours a day each day”.

She is mother to two children, both professionals. She said juggling being a mother and her career could not have been successful without the help of her husband Carl.

She said that in the Gauteng Life Esidimeni case, a petition was handed to then Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.

This was a good thing, but Mahlangu did not give it any attention.

Crouse said that if she could go back and change things, she would make sure a senior person in the department acted on that petition.

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