Stakeholders welcome proposal to amend Legal Aid Act

Stakeholders have welcomed the proposed amendment of Legal Aid Act to allow paralegal officers from the Malawi Legal Aid Bureau to represent accused persons in courts.

However, they suggested that the amendment should be broadened to encompass all paralegal officers even those working with civil society and non-governmental organizations in the country.

Charles Kajoloweka: We need to expand the legal system

Currently, only lawyers from the bureau are allowed to represent the suspects.

Speaking on Thursday during a stakeholder’s consultation meeting on the amendment of the Legal Aid Act at Grand Palace Hotel in Mzuzu, Youth ad Society (YAS) Executive Director Charles Kajoloweka said the civil society welcomes the amendment, but said this should not be limited to Legal Bureau paralegals.

“When we look at access to justice, very few people can afford legal fees. If we look at the 637 practising lawyers against a population of 18 million, it is a ratio of one lawyer to 30,000 Malawians which is not good. We need more human resource,” he said.

He said the opportunity to expand access to legal representation is by allowing all paralegal officers to do legal representation in the lower court.

Concurring with Kajoloweka, CCAP Livingstonia Synod Church and Society Executive Director, Moses Mkandawire said all paralegal officers in the country should be allowed to represent Malawians who cannot afford to pay legal fees to private lawyers.

He said most legal practitioners are based in the urban areas and are generally expensive such that the marginalised rural population cannot afford their services.

Kajoloweka added that allowing all paralegal officers to represent accused persons in courts would help the poor to access justice and ease backlog of cases.

Chairperson for Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament who is a Member of Parliament for Lilongwe South, Peter Dimba, described the proposal as pertinent, saying his committee will consider it and come up with a resolution after consulting all other stakeholders.

He stated that the proposed amendment was only for the Legal Aid Bureau paralegals, but now as stakeholders want all paralegal officers to be considered, the committee will come up with a resolution.

“We are aware that even the police prosecutors are also paralegal officers. We also have some lay magistrates that are also paralegal officers. So there is sense in what they are proposing that we need to broaden beyond the Legal Aid Bureau,” Dimba said.

He further said the bureau, which has 25 lawyers, is overwhelmed with thousands of cases for legal help as the lawyers are not adequate enough to represent all its clients.

Dimba said, “most stakeholders are in agreement with the proposal that it is important and high time that the Legal Aid Bureau started using paralegal officers to help them in representing the clients as there are many clients languishing in prison because they can’t afford a lawyer.”

The legislature said many stakeholders feel that paralegal officers should have limited rights in lower courts.

According to Dimba, the committee will come up with resolutions on the matter and present a report to parliament and when parliament adopts it, process of making an amendment of the Legal Aid Act will begin.

Legal Aid Bureau Director Masauko Chakakala said the amendment of the bill is important as it will help his office have more labour force to handle many cases they have.

The bureau has, so far, over 24,000 cases and against 25 lawyers.

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