The High Court has dismissed a Malawi Law Society (MLS) bid to assess the legality of public hearings by Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee on proposed law amendment to allow paralegals limited audience in lower courts.
Delivering his ruling on the issue virtually on Thursday, High Court of Malawi Judge Mike Tembo said the Legal Affairs Committee was within its mandate by organising the public hearings to solicit input for the amendment to the Legal Aid Act.
The judge, who dismissed the MLS application with costs, agreed with the defendants’ position that contrary to the MLS submission, the committee is not restricted to the functions under Standing Order 159.
In the case, Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament chairperson Peter Dimba was the first respondent and the committee was the second respondent.
MLS accused the committee of acting outside its mandate by entertaining the proposal by the Legal Aid Bureau to allow paralegals limited access in subordinate courts on specified cases.
But in their arguments, the respondents said under Standing Order 150(2) and 159, the Legal Affairs Committee the mandate to conduct hearings.
Reacting to the ruling on Thursday, Dimba expressed excitement, saying his committee has a broader mandate of oversight over institutions that deal with legal issues.
In a written response, he said: “The judge said the committee should carry out consultations without being constrained and that the applicant [MLS] should wait for the final report of the committee. The application was dismissed with costs.”
MLS honorary secretary Chrispin Ngunde said in a memo to the society’s membership on Thursday that the MLS executive committee will meet on October 9 2021 to review available options and decide the way forward following the High Court’s decision.
“As matters stand, it is now open to the society to either make a fresh submission before LAC [Legal Affairs Committee] or adopt the submissions already made before LAC or renew the application for permission to move for judicial review at the court or wait for any developments at Parliament and take the next step,” reads the memo.
MLS wanted the court to declare actions by the parliamentary committee as misfeasance and/or abuse of public office, stating that the committee had failed to appreciate and/or to discharge its duty and had proceeded without any jurisdiction contrary to public interest reflected in the law.
The proposal to allow paralegals limited access in subordinate courts is enjoying support from various quarters, including civil society organisations, some individual lawyers and the Judiciary.
Earlier this week, the Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreea) expressed its interest to join the case in support of the proposal allowing paralegals limited audience in subordinate courts, saying the decision would promote access to justice.
Chreea executive director Victor Mhango is on record as having said since his organisation works with vulnerable groups, it appreciates challenges they go through in accessing justice due to lack of legal representation.
Last month, Danwood Chirwa, a Malawian professor of law who teaches at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, noted that the efforts by MLS had no legal basis and were indicative of heightened desperation.
MLS argued that allowing paralegals to represent clients would compromise standards and negatively affect access to justice by the poor.