The court set up and the way proceedings are conducted is intimidatory to people, including witnesses, Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda has said.
The Chief Justice was speaking on Friday at a seminar for judicial officers in Blantyre organised by Southern Africa Litigation Centre where a book titled Using the Courts to Protect Vulnerable People was also launched.
Nyirenda, whose contribution to the book is titled ‘The role of the Judiciary in Protecting the rights of Vulnerable groups in Malawi’, said most people are not aware of the extent of their rights and the means by which the rights can be enforced.
He said: “As for those with some idea of the means by which to enforce their rights, they soon realise that access to any means is barred in many aspects—and virtually beyond their reach.”
He said gross inequality and discrimination remain in large sectors of the society.
Nyirenda said vulnerable groups include women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and persons with a serious illness or health condition, including persons with albinism.
He said it is the duty of the court to ensure equality as different sectors of the society do not understand the intricate procedures and evidential burdens.
The Chief Justice said people would rather not spend their time litigating in courtrooms which are already intimidating, boring and tiresome.
Nyirenda said: “Citizens would rather get on with their lives than spend valuable time in courts waiting to be patronised by intricate institutional designs, complex procedures, and gruelling examinations and cross-examinations, and in the end, be subjected to the anxiety of waiting for the unknown, as judges take their time to come up with loquacious and legalistic decisions.”
He said vulnerable people are already disadvantaged and their lives already concerned with more pressing needs of survival, and going to court would be adding injury to misery.
Asked to comment on the presentation by the Chief Justice in a telephone interview later, a human rights activist Timothy Mtambo, executive director of Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), said he was happy the Chief Justice was aware of the obstacles vulnerable or disadvantaged groups face in courts.
Mtambo said it was high time courts found ways to make the procedures simple and not scary to an ordinary person that come in conflict with the law.
He said vulnerable or disadvantaged people have at times lost cases or even been jailed because they had no legal representation which the State, for example in criminal cases, is supposed to provide through the Legal Aid Department.
Mtambo said courts, in such circumstances, are supposed to be steadfast and protect the rights of such groups by at least assessing how cases are being handled before arriving at decisions.
He said prisons must not be for the poor, arguing it was undisputable fact and shameful that prisons in Malawi are flooded with the poor since the rich always find their way out either during trial as they can afford expensive lawyers or after conviction they can pay required fine.
He said the same also happens when the rich can afford to apply for bail and pay the bail bond while the poor rot in cells, sometimes with no idea that they have a right to apply for bail. n