South African Court Orders Government To Pay Some Legal Costs for HIV/AIDS Group
The Pretoria High Court on Tuesday ordered the South African government to pay limited legal costs to the HIV/AIDS advocacy group Treatment Action Campaign because the government failed to respond to 11 requests from TAC for documents related to the rollout of the national antiretroviral treatment program, the SAPA/Sunday Times reports (SAPA/Sunday Times, 12/14). According to Fatima Hassan, an attorney with the AIDS Law Project of Witwatersrand University, the South African Department of Health was supposed to attach a document -- called "annexure A" -- to its plan that was released in November 2003. The document reportedly detailed important information about the antiretroviral distribution program, including patient treatment targets and timetables, as well as when the government aimed to achieve certain program objectives in specific provinces. In October, TAC dropped its request for the publication of "annexure A" after health department officials told the group that there was no "officially adopted document" for the rollout of antiretroviral drugs to area hospitals. TAC said it requested the release of the document 11 times before the government revealed that annexure A was not adopted by the Cabinet (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/5). Acting Judge Natraval Ranchod ordered Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the respondent in the case, to pay some of TAC's legal costs because the ministry failed to "remove all references" in the operational plan to the "nonexistent" annexes, according to the SAPA/News24.com. "Had the applicant been informed of this earlier, the application would not have been lodged," Ranchod said. However, Ranchod refused TAC's request for the costs to include the salaries of two attorneys because he said it was not "warranted," the SAPA/News24.com reports (SAPA/News24.com, 12/14).
The decision "vindicates" TAC's decision to take the government to court over the release of the document, according to a TAC release. TAC said its primary concern in the case was "the delay in saving lives," according to the release (TAC release, 12/14). "It sends a very strong signal to the Department of Health, as well as other organs of state, to act in a constitutional manner, which basically means they can't ignore requests for access to information," Hassan said on Tuesday, adding, "The court found that it was the minister (Tshabalala-Msimang) who wasted taxpayers' money and not the TAC. ... The minister came to court to defend an indefensible case." Juanita Terblanche, deputy AIDS spokesperson for the opposition party Democratic Alliance, said, "We despair that so much time and money has been devoted to such a pointless exercise. The resources devoted to this court case could have far better been devoted to ensuring the more rapid rollout of the antiretroviral program" (SAPA/Sunday Times, 12/14).