Legal Aid Bureau and Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament officials have said amendments to the Legal Aid Act will help clear the backlog of 628,000 that accumulated in the country’s courts of law by 2020, adding that doing so would be for citizens’ benefit.
The two institutions are advancing the proposal, arguing that it will improve access to justice among vulnerable populations on remand in prisons by allowing paralegals (legal assistants) to represent them.
The proposal has not gone down well with the Malawi Law Society (MLS), which argues that the proposal to amend Section 14 of the Act does not promote, but seeks to undermine, available alternatives set out in the law on legal representation for the less privileged.
MLS President Patrick Mpaka and Honorary Secretary Chrispin Ngunde argue, in a statement they released on Tuesday, that the Republican Constitution provides for legal representation by a legal practitioner, and not a legal assistant.
But Legal Aid Bureau Director Masauko Chamkakala said the amendments would help the country clear at least 628,000 cases that are yet to be deliberated on.
“This is not new, the over 419 police prosecutors who are not lawyers are successfully prosecuting cases and the lay magistrates in districts across the country are not lawyers but they can meet out sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment. As such, paralegals can effectively represent Malawians,” Chamkakala said.
While acknowledging seeing the statement from MLS, Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament Chairperson Peter Dimba described it as misinforming.
Dimba said the committee would do everything in its power to set the record straight on the matter.
“Suffice it to say that, at this point, their arguments are very strange, full of misinformation and lack pragmatism. For instance, they say the committee cannot provide oversight to the Legal Aid Bureau when, in fact, the law, through Standing Order 159, gives the committee the mandate to provide oversight over the bureau,” Dimba said.
At 627, Malawi has one of the least populations of licenced lawyers in the region.
With a population of between 18 and 19 million, the lawyer-client ratio in Malawi is at 1:30,000
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.