Some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and human rights groups have thrown their weight behind the push for the amendment of Legal Aid Bureau Act in order to facilitate justice for underserved groups such as those in rural areas.
This follows concerns that the Legal Aid Bureau’s paralegal officers are not allowed to represent vulnerable people requiring legal representation in courts despite having legal qualifications.
At the moment, the bureau has a backlog of over 24,000 cases that need to be handled by 25 lawyers translating into over 900 cases per lawyer.
Some of the groups that are in support of amendment of the Act include Church and Society of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia, Human Rights Defenders Coalition as well as Youth and Society who made their point during a public hearing in Mzuzu on access to justice, with focus on legal representation by vulnerable people organised by Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee.
Moses Mkandawire, Executive Director of the Church and Society, said it becomes extremely hard for people in rural areas to access justice due to the absence of legal representation hence the need to amend the Legal Aid Bureau Act.
“We would want to ensure that the majority who are poor people have got access to justice because 85% of them live in rural areas, therefore access to just for them, assuming they have been accused of violating any law, becomes extremely difficult for them to access legal representation,” Mkandawire said.
Representing HRDC, Happy Mhango said access to justice is a fundamental human right that should not be compromised.
Mhango called on the bureau to scale up to other institutions that have paralegals such Malawi Police Service and Anti-Corruption Bureau but have limited rights.
According to Masauko Chamkakala, Director for Legal Aid Bureau, amending the Act will give additional hands to the bureau to handle the many cases that it is currently grappling with.
“We only have 25 lawyers and they cannot be everywhere where we have our clients so the additional hands from the paralegals are very important for us,” he said.
Meanwhile Chairperson of the Legal Affairs Committee, Peter Dimba, said he is hoping that after another meeting in Lilongwe on Thursday, the committee will have a resolution on the matter to be presented to Parliament.
“The aim of these meetings is to basically solicit views from our stakeholders regarding the proposal made by legal aid bureau, so we will meet other stakeholders in Lilongwe including the attorney general, solicitor general on the matter so that we conclude so that as a committee we come up with a resolution on the matter and present a report to parliament,” Dimba said.
Earlier, Malawi Law Society said amending the Act could lower legal standards at a time there are calls to up standards of legal practice.
Paralegals, who are also called legal aid assistants, are holders of certificates or diplomas in law and in some cases degrees but are not admitted to the bar.