By Andrew Magombo:
A number of stakeholders have rallied behind the proposal by Legal Aid Bureau to amend Section 14 of the Legal Aid Act which will allow limited audience for the bureau’s officers otherwise known as paralegals.
This transpired on Thursday at Parliament Building during a final public hearing on the matter organized by the Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee.
Previously, the Bureau lobbied the Committee to amend the Act as they only have 25 lawyers expected to handle over 24,000 of vulnerable people hence calling for inclusion of Paralegals in lower courts.
It did not take long before a debate ensued with some sectors like Malawi Law Society (MLS) saying this will compromise judicial standards hence Parliament instituting public hearings across all regions to hear views across the board.
Prior to the hearing in Lilongwe, similar meetings happened in Blantyre and Mzuzu where a number of stakeholders were in support of the move except MLS.
Conspicuously missing among key stakeholder during the final meeting were members from MLS who in a recent press release categorically quashed the idea of allowing paralegals represent vulnerable people who cannot afford to pay for legal services.
However, in their presentations, the Judiciary, Malawi Prison Inspectorate, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and other stakeholders weighed their support towards Legal Aid Bureau’s proposal.
CCJP National Cordinator, Boniface Chibwana, said the lawyer to client ratio in Malawi is the lowest in Southern Africa and far much lower than the recommended rate by the International Bar Association pegged at 1 lawyer to 1, 994 citizens.
Currently, with only 672 Malawian practicing lawyers with a majority of them private counsels, the ratio is 1 lawyer to 30,162 individuals for the over 18 million population the country has.
Echoing his sentiments, MHRC Director for Civil and Political Rights, Peter Chisi, said the Commission fully supports amendment of the Act claiming it will shift the dynamics of access to justice in Malawi which is usually polarized towards the rich than the poor.
Speaking to the media on behalf of stakeholders, Prisons Inspectorate Chairperson Justice Kenan Manda, lamented congestion in prison where a majority of prisoners and remandees are in custody for petty crimes like stealing a chicken simply because they had no legal representation.
He further said currently the prison’s population has a percentage of 27.29% of suspects on remand against the pre-arranged rate of 13% with many of those having committed petty crimes
He said: “Looking at the situation in our prisons, the situation has worsened as communicable diseases are easily spread. The support of paralegals will help us decongest our prisons.”
Deputy Chairperson of the Legal Affairs Committee, McDowell Mkandawire, said there is overwhelming support among stakeholders a move he believes will hasten amendment of the act.
He further said they have learnt a lot from the stakeholders and as a committee mandated to provide oversight for the bureau, they will push for the amendment through right channels.
“Once we meet, the Solicitor General, the Attorney General and the Malawi Law Society, we will make a final decision from there,” he added.