Malawi govt asked to ‘oil wheels of justice to roll’: CHRR wants adequate support towards Legal Aid Bureau

After published report that the Legal Ai Bureau (LAB), a government agency that provides free legal services to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, suspended offering the services in February last year due to funding constraints, there has been calls for authorities to empower the bureau with more resources to discharge its function.

Mtambo: Authorities should provide LAB with adequate funding to provide justice to people who cannot afford legal representation
Chreaa executive director Victor Mhango addressing inmates: Nearly 1 200 murder suspects are languishing in some of the country’s prisons without prospects of trial

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) said in a statement that it is “deeply disturbed” by newspaper report that over 12 00 murder suspects cannot access justice due to lack of legal representation by the financially-crippled   LAB.

In the statement, Timothy Mtambo the executive director of CHRR said the human rights watchdog finds the development “regrettable” and “a serious violation of constitutional rights, especially the right to access justice as stipulated under Section 42 of the Constitution of Republic of Malawi and other international human rights instruments which the country ratified.”

Reads Section 42(2)(v) for instance: “Every person arrested  for, or accused of, the alleged commission of an offence shall, in addition to the rights which he or she has as a detained person, have the right to be represented by a legal person of his or her choice or where required in the interests of justice, to be provided legal representation at the expense of the State and to be informed of these rights”

CHRR boss said it sounds “retrogressive” that more than 20 years after the adoption of a Constitution with a comprehensive bill of rights enshrined in Chapter IV, Malawi cannot uphold and promote access to justice for its murder suspects.

“This needs urgent action on the part of government,” Mtambo said.

LAB spokesperson Chikondi Lunduka said in quotes reported by The Nation a daily newspaper that the bureau handled about 1 400 homicide cases in 2015 prior to the suspension.

She said that after the suspension, the bureau has registered over 1 200 homicide cases nationwide.

Lunduka said: “The suspension has led to the delay of justice for both the victims’ families and the suspected murderers as the cases will take more time to be concluded. The bureau registers between 800 and 1 600 homicide cases in a year.”

The paper reported that LAB ventured into resource mobilisation and secured funding from First Merchant Bank (FMB) group vice-chairperson Hitesh Anadkat to help in reducing the prison overcrowding in the country through activities such as bail applications, lodging appeals against convictions and sentences.

Lunduka said the European Union (EU) also funded the bureau to undertake bail applications through the Governance Democratic Programme which phased out last year whereas Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (Pasi) supported with the handling of 20 homicide cases

And in  the statement. CHRR said it has always found disturbing that government has “abdicated its serious constitutional obligation” on the matter in the hands of donors, private sectors and other well-wishers.

“Unfortunately, relying on the benevolence of others has proved to be unsustainable and costly to the rights of the suspects.

“Government needs to take charge and start providing adequate financial and human resources to the LAB.  This could significantly be achieved through increased budgetary allocations to LAB to enable to the department offer adequate and timely legal representation for murder suspects,” Mtambo said in his statement.

CHRR boss further added that “ every suspect is assumed innocent until proven guilty” and it is, therefore, “legally unwarranted” to keep murder suspects in custody for years without offering them the right to access justice at a competent court of law.

“As CHRR, we also believe that the recently launched Human Rights Section in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affair by the government will go a significant stride in improving the human rights situation of the citizens, including murder suspects,” the statement reads.

Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango also said “ Every suspect has a right to be tried within a reasonable time.”

In the editorial opinion of The Nation newspaper on Monday April 10, 2017 commenting on their lead story, they urged the authorities “to ensure that governance institutions such as the Legal Aid Bureau are not  systematically disabled by way of reduced or no funding.”

The paper concluded: “It is time to oil the wheels of justice to roll.”

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