Parliamentary Committee takes Legal Aid Bureau Public Hearings to LL

Parliamentary Committee takes Legal Aid Bureau Public Hearings to LL

Lilongwe, September 8, Mana: As debate over court representation by Legal Aid Bureau Officers (paralegals) rages on, Parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee will on Thursday engage stakeholders from the Central Region at a hearing scheduled to take place at Parliament Building in Lilongwe.

This will be the third public hearing in two weeks after similar public discussions were held in Northern and Southern Regions in Mzuzu and Blantyre respectively.

Chairperson for the committee, who is also legislator for Lilongwe South Constituency, Peter Dimba, said they embarked on the move following a proposal from Legal Aid Bureau which seeks to assist vulnerable suspects who cannot afford to pay hefty fees for legal services for smaller cases.

According to Dimba, Parliament, through the committee, is legally mandated to provide oversight over the Bureau’s operations, hence its swift move to address the situation.

He further said once consultations are done and the proposal comes to pass, it will assist vulnerable people on the wrong end of the justice system due to lack of legal representation to be represented.

“Currently, there are only a few lawyers (within Legal Aid Bureau) who are expected to handle thousands of cases which have stalled in the courts. 

“The situation is dire as those who cannot afford a lawyer are failing to access justice appropriately,” said Dimba.

On the emerging mixed reactions, Dimba questioned why Police Officers and Magistrates are allowed to sit for court proceedings yet paralegal officers are denied the same platform despite some possessing diplomas.

“Overall, responses from stakeholders have been positive except Malawi Law Society who earlier had reservations but I am certain they have now reconsidered their position having understood the basis for our proposals,” he added.

Efforts to hear from Malawi Law Society proved futile as the Spokesperson was not available for comment.

On his part, Legal Aid Bureau Director, Masauko Chamkakala, said the bureau was not worried with negative reactions as they are part of any democratic process but he firmly stressed that eventually, Parliament would have the final say on the issue. 

“We have over 24,000 cases with only 25 lawyers. We reckon there are some simple matters which can be competently handled by our paralegals, hence our proposal.

“Paralegals will be allowed a right of audience in selected court cases within their competence, same way the judiciary uses the same cadre of professionals, hence no compromise in the system,” he said.

Meanwhile, spokesperson for Malawi Law Commission, Robert Kandulu, has said the commission is yet to receive an official proposal, therefore, cannot make a statement of their stand.

In the aftermath of the public hearings, the Legal Affairs Committee is expected to engage the Solicitor General and officials from the Ministry of Justice to map the way forward.