The Legal Aid Bureau is a government office mandated to provide legal aid to indigent persons. Over the years, not much has been heard about the office until recently. Weekend Nation deputy editor MOSES MICHAEL-PHIRI caught up with the bureau’s director Masauko Chamkakala to find out progress being made to make the office more effective:
First, can you explain why was the bureau established?
The Legal Aid Bureau was established under the Legal Aid Act of 2011 to provide legal aid services to persons of insufficient means in Malawi. In other words, the bureau is mandated to provide legal aid services to persons who cannot afford private legal services. These services range from legal representation in courts and tribunals, legal advisory services, and indeed legal literacy.
There are reports that the bureau is struggling to meet the demand of its services due to underfunding. How serious is this problem?
As you may know, the cost of private legal services in the country is very high. This means that the group or bracket of Malawians that require legal aid services is very high. Consequently, the bureau cannot satisfactorily meet the demand. The problem is that the bureau relies so much on government funding which is also stretched to meet other government obligations. This has affected the bureau’s ability to fully support its operations in terms of resources for operations and indeed the number of officers to attend to the demands for legal aid.
However, the situation in the current financial year has been mitigated by the allocation of about K500 million for the operations of the bureau. This is an unprecedented allocation to the legal aid service provision institution ever in the history of the country. Further to this, the bureau is receiving enormous support from the European Union [EU] through the Chilungamo [Justice and Accountability] programme. The situation of adequate human resource, however, remains as one critical challenge and the bureau has engaged government on how best this can be resolved. The bureau is also still struggling with logistical issues, especially lack of adequate motor vehicles to support the operations.
Since you took office, can you give us the milestones and challenges you have faced?
As a new institution, one would say that merely setting up the operations of the bureau is a milestone. To organise and orchestrate even the tiniest office procedure is an achievement in a new institution! Aside from that, the bureau has managed to raise the profile of legal aid services to the extent that government is confident to allocate such sums, thus a testament that something worthwhile is being done. A number of stakeholders, including the EU have followed suit.
Recently, the Bureau has managed to open the Eastern Regional Office which is meant to serve people in the Eastern Region of the country who were traveling long distances to access services in either Blantyre or Lilongwe. Plans are under way to commence opening of district legal aid centers. In the current financial year, the Bureau plans to open district legal aid centers in Mulanje, Mangochi, Kasungu, Nkhotakota and Karonga.
Another milestone would be the high number of people who have been assisted by the Bureau in various cases across the country. Our services have brought much needed legal relief to many Malawians and even the judiciary has commended the Bureau for the strides it has taken so far. Not that we should be lost in the maze of self-congratulations, but to point out that something is being done!
Recently, you told the nation that people should not fear the courts because the bureau is there to help them. How do you help people?
The bureau assists people in many ways. We do provide legal representation in courts of law and other tribunals. The bureau also provides legal advisory services where we provide legal advice to persons on legal matters they are facing. The bureau is also tasked with provision of legal education services where we teach the public on important legal issues.
There have been instances where people are turned away from the bureau because their cases are ‘complicated’. What type of cases is the bureau comfortable to handle?
I can confidently state that the bureau never turns away clients on the basis that their cases are complicated. We have more than capable legal aid advocates some of whom have years of experience in legal matters. However, there are some matters which the bureau, under the governing law is not allowed to handle. These include matters involving electoral laws, mortgages and other such commercial issues. Aside from that, the bureau handles all manner of cases ranging from criminal matters like murder, theft, rape etc. and all other civil matters including contracts, torts, family relation issues, land matters, inheritance matters, etc.
Our recent visit to your offices in Blantyre, we found quite a number of people seeking free services. This demonstrates that free legal services are in high demand in the country. Are there plans in future to introduce a ‘small fee’?
As already stated, the demand for legal aid services is indeed high in Malawi. As a matter of fact, the bureau, as per its legal prescriptions does ask the client to make contribution towards their cases. This contribution varies depending on the level of income of the person. The bureau does undertake an assessment of the income of the clients before determining how much they can contribute. In some cases clients pay nothing, whilst in others they are requested to pay some contribution. In some cases the bureau enters into an arrangement where it collects part of the judgment sum in the event the client is paid after the case.
The bureau has in the past been handling murder cases but reports of poor funding stalled the work, has the situation improved now?
There has been some marked improvement in handling of murder cases, but as you indicated, there is still a lot of work to be done. The backlog is so high but the laborers are so few! It must be pointed out here that murder cases require a concerted effort from various stakeholders starting from the police who do the investigations etc. then the prosecutors, the defence [typically the Legal Aid Bureau] and the Judiciary. If any one of these stakeholders drops the ball, the system cannot move. Even in terms of funding, if any one of these stakeholders is funded less for murder trials, the rest cannot proceed to dispose of these matters. Currently, we are working under the stewardship of the Chief Justice to harmonise the operations of these stakeholders not just for homicide matters, but for all other matters as well so as to have a more efficient justice delivery system.