A group of 12 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have spoken in support of the proposal to amend Section 14 of the Legal Aid Act to allow legal aid assistants also known as paralegals have a limited audience in subordinate courts of law where they can represent clients in minor cases both civil and criminal.
The concerned CSOs include Youth and Society (YAS), Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI), Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Human Right Defenders Coalition (HRDC), Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA) and Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).
Others are Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC), Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Church and Society Programs of the Synod of Livingstonia, Citizen Alliance, Youth Watch Society and Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM).
Addressing journalists in Lilongwe on Wednesday, the human rights activists lamented that the poor and vulnerable people continue being denied access to justice due to systemic challenges and bureaucracy in the legal profession despite the Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa acknowledging the role of non-lawyers at all stages of criminal justice in promoting access to justice for the poor.
“Non- lawyers, which include lay magistrates, police prosecutors, paralegals working in civil society organizations, and the State Advocate Chambers have always been the central part of the justice system and key players in promoting access to justice. It is for this reason therefore that we as the civil society in Malawi call upon all stakeholders involved to approach the issue with an open mind and allow a healthy debate that can bring out solutions on access to justice for the poor,” said YAS executive director Charles Kajoloweka, who read the statement on behalf of his colleagues.
Kajoloweka commended the Malawi Legal Aid Bureau for advancing the proposal and Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament for soliciting views of the public on the matter to ensure that the affected communities have a voice in the proposed amendment.
“We, therefore, discourage any efforts that aim at curtailing or hindering this public discussion which has the effect of improving access to justice for all. As a country, we need to address this problem where access to justice has been a nightmare for the poor and vulnerable,” he emphasized.
The proponents of the proposed amendment believe that giving the legal assistants from the Malawi Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) legal powers to represent clients in Court will assist the vulnerable people with minor offences who lack legal representation and have overstayed on remand, access justice, and decongest the prisons.
According to the Legal Aid Bureau, there is a backlog of about 700,000 cases as of November 2020 which cannot be handled by the country’s 627 licensed legal practitioners. The Legal Aid Bureau has currently 25,000 cases registered with it against 25 lawyers working with the Bureau. However, the Bureau has 36 paralegals who cannot represent litigants as the law currently does not allow them to do so.
On the other side of the debate is the Malawi Law Society (MLS), which opposes the proposal to give a limited audience to paralegals in subordinate courts in minor cases. MLS argues that allowing paralegals to have a limited audience in subordinate courts will compromise legal standards in the country.
The MLS perceives that it is not a good idea to amend the section in question and give paralegals a right to represent clients in Court despite the Bureau facing capacity challenges. According to the lawyers association, there is evidence that the number of legal practitioners in the country is rising as more are being admitted to the bar. It also believes the unbundling of the University of Malawi will create fertile ground for more institutions training lawyers.
Kajoloweka said while the human rights activists encourage the debate, it is important to note that the matter raises the big question of access to justice for the poor.
He said as CSOs, they see merit in the proposed amendment since it is trying to enhance access to justice by the most vulnerable groups.
“This is notwithstanding the fact that as CSOs we respect alternative views that any stakeholder in the matter may hold to solve this old-age problem,” he said.
Meanwhile, MLS has obtained a court order, seeking judicial review on the proposed amendments to the Act.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :