Middle Temple Young Barristers' Association

Volunteering at the Women's Legal Centre, Cape Town

Sarah Mahony

I received a Middle Temple Internship Award in 2013, which enabled me to travel to Cape Town, South Africa to be an intern for 3 months. I worked at The Women’s Legal Centre, a non-profit, independently funded law centre specialising in providing legal advice and litigation for women in South Africa. The WLC provide advice across a wide range of legal issues that affect women in South Africa including domestic violence, relationship and marriage rights, and discrimination in the workplace. Access to justice for women, especially black women, in South Africa is a huge problem and the WLC are working to help change this by protecting women’s legal rights and bringing important cases to court.


The WLC is in the city centre in an area that is much like the Chancery Lane of Cape Town. Every building has a law firm and it is only a few short steps to Keerom Street, home to most Barristers’ Chambers. Parliament and The Law Courts are also around the corner. The location of WLC made it very easy to make contacts quickly and by attending court and meetings, both Government and NGO led, I met many interesting people working in similar fields. As with any internship, to get the most out of the opportunity I had to be ready to take initiative, get myself known and not be afraid to ask to be involved in projects and meetings. 


I arrived at the centre expressing an interest in employment law and conducted research into the problems faced by the increasing numbers of female miners who work in dangerous conditions in South Africa. Many reported being put on extended maternity leave with no pay when they announced to their employers that they were pregnant. This research task gave me the chance to get to grips with a different employment law structure, as well as comparing and contrasting the differences in the maternity provisions of different jurisdictions.


Family law is a huge strength at the WLC and I was lucky enough to work on a case that highlighted the difficulties faced by women married under Islamic Law in South Africa. During my time at WLC Islamic marriages were not recognised legally and were deemed only to be regulated by Islamic law. The result was that women faced many legal problems when trying to exercise their rights in relation to property and children when these marriages broke down or their spouse died. I witnessed a significant victory for the WLC when they won a case brought on behalf of a woman who was finally recognised as the spouse of her deceased husband, restoring her rights to her former marital home.


After meeting barristers working in the area, I was offered the opportunity to assist with taking witness statements in the largest Township in Cape Town, Khayelitsha, as part of the research for a major Government Enquiry into alleged Police corruption and inefficiency in the Township.


My internship in Cape Town was a fantastic opportunity and I want to thank Middle Temple for the assistance they provided to me through the Middle Temple Internship Award.

Background image by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0