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Committee backs Legal Aid Act change

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The Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament Thursday threw its weight behind calls by the Legal Aid Bureau to have Section 14 of the Legal Aid Act amended.

In its current state, Section 14 of the Legal Aid Act does not allow paralegals to represent people in court but the Legal Aid Bureau wants it amended so that marginalised people can have representation.

Thursday, the committee brought from stakeholders from the legal profession to a roundtable to hear their stand on the matter.

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Vice-chairperson of the committee McDowell Mkandawire said stakeholders that were present at the roundtable supported the amendment of the Act.

Mkandawire said the committee learnt with shock the workload that the Legal Aid Bureau has, hence the need to bring in paralegal officers to help with other minor cases.

“As of now, paralegal officers are not allowed to represent people in court. But, after hearing from different stakeholders, we will be engaging the Solicitor General, Attorney General and Malawi Law Society to map the way forward on the issue,” Mkandawire said.

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Representative of the stakeholders, who happens to be Prison Inspectorate Chairperson Judge Kenan Manda, said the country had cases of people sent to prison when they were not supposed to.

He said, if such people had representation, they would not be sent to prison.

“We are talking of petty and minor offences. However, we still have several people in prison with the petty offence. That has led to congestion, which can only be dealt with if more legal representation is taken on board,” Manda said.

Legal Aid Bureau Director Masauko Chamkakala said the issue of amending the section was not for personal gain but, rather, to help vulnerable people in rural areas.

He said, currently, the bureau has about 25 lawyers against 23,000 cases, which means 700 people are supposed to be attended to by one lawyer at a time.

“So if we amend this Act, the number of legal people attending to cases will increase a bit, thereby easing the workload and giving vulnerable people access to justice as per the Constitution’s requirements,” Chamkakala said.

Meanwhile, Legal Aid Bureau has said 90 percent of people in the country do not have legal representation.

In recent weeks, there have been mixed views as regards the amendment to the section.

While other people were expressing a positive attitude towards the proposal, some entities, notably Malawi Law Society, expressed reservations on the matter.

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