In a number of jurisdictions in the world today there are professional societies of lawyers who call themselves 'barristers' or 'advocates', and who hold themselves out as specialists in the skill of advocating the causes of their clients in courts of law. Examples are England, Wales, Scotland, the various states and territories of Australia (Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory), New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and also South Africa.
Each of these societies has its own peculiar rules, but they all subscribe, by and large, to three principles: that they practice independently; that they practice mainly upon referral by another professional; and that they regulate their own affairs. Self-regulation by legal practitioners of their own affairs is recognised by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, endorsed by the General Assembly in 1990: 'Lawyers shall be entitled to form and join self-governing professional associations to represent their interests, promote their continuing education and training, and protect their professional integrity. The executive body of the professional associations shall be elected by its members and shall exercise its function without external interference'. The intrinsic value underlying this approach is that lawyers and judges provide the first line of defence against human rights violations and are vulnerable to pressure and attacks for the discharge of their professional duties. The legal profession is today the only profession which is singled out for protection by the international community, through the United Nations, in the form of endorsing minimum standards of guarantees which member states are obliged to provide in their domestic legislation.
In South Africa, the earliest record of a practising advocate, is that of Jacob van Heurn, who was admitted in 1688 as an advocate and a notary in the Cape. Some 99 years ago, on 7th June 1902, the Constitution of the Order of Advocates of the Transvaal was adopted in Pretoria. That society included advocates who practised also in Johannesburg, and that date is regarded as the birthday of the Johannesburg Bar. There are today more than 2000 practising advocates in South Africa. More than 90% of them are members of societies of advocates at the major centres such as Pretoria, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Bisho, Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Mafikeng, and Cape Town. These societies are all affiliated to the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.
In Johannesburg most advocates belong to a voluntary association, the name of which is the Johannesburg Society of the Advocates. This is the largest Bar in South Africa and it has approximately 600 members, practising in chambers held either in the city centre, or in Sandton. In the city centre, members practice in Innes Chambers and Schreiner Chambers. In Sandton, they practice in Sandown Village, Maisels Chambers, and The Chambers. Members may only practice in venues approved by the Bar Council.
The affairs of the Johannesburg Bar are regulated by a Bar Council of 16 members, elected annually. One half of the Bar Council is required to consist of members of previously disadvantaged groups.