Despite the recent appointments of new judges, the High Court of Malawi benches continue to be understaffed, a development that is denying Malawians speedy access to justice.
Fed up with the trend, the Malawi Law Society (MLS) has petitioned Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda in his capacity as chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to appoint more judicial officers in the wake of changes in the Courts Act which created five divisions of the High Court.
Using a programme-based budget model, in 2016/17 five out of 16 criminal cases were concluded in the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal and 1 677 out of 5 219 registered civil cases were finalised in the High Court where 1 647 out of 3 566 registered criminal cases were also concluded during the period under review.
In the Commercial Court, 221 out of 364 registered cases were concluded while in the Industrial Relations Court, 997 out of 1 415 registered cases were finalised, according to statistics shared by MLS.
In a petition signed by MLS president Khumbo Soko and copied to Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu, the society said statistics in its possession show that there are 22 judges against the establishment of 46 and five registrars against the required 10.
The Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu registries, according to the petition, do not even have enough officers to fill up some of the created divisions whereas Mzuzu does not have a commercial division, a situation that forces people to seek services at the nearest court in Lilongwe.
In an interview yesterday, Soko said: “If judges are swamped and overworked, it slows down the system. It is becoming increasingly difficult for matters to be tried. There are thousands of cases that are trial ready, but can’t be heard because we simply don’t have enough officers around. This simply means that many litigants are being denied their day in court.”
Section 6A of the Courts Act created Civil, Commercial, Criminal, Family and Probate and Revenue courts and judges have been divided into some of the divisions in Blantyre and Lilongwe, according to the petition.
The society also noted that the new Courts (Civil Procedure) Rules 2017 put mandatory mediation into the hands of a High Court judge who cannot hear the matter in case mediation fails.
MLS has also bemoaned the lack of space for judges to work in especially at Lilongwe and Zomba registries of the High Court.
Reacting to the petition, Tembenu admitted that the Courts Act created new divisions, but said it was up to the Judiciary to come up with administrative arrangements that would facilitate smooth service delivery during the transition.
He said the petition was rightly directed to the Chief Justice who is mandated to advertise for new judges and submissions would be made to the President for formal appointment.
High Court of Malawi and Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal registrar Agnes Patemba was not immediately available for comment yesterday.
The petition comes against a background of a similar concern in 2015 when MLS Mzuzu Chapter asked the Chief Justice to address a shortage of judges at the Mzuzu Registry.
At the time, the Mzuzu Registry had a single judge, Dingiswayo Madise, a development that resulted in a backlog of cases.
Until recently, Mzuzu High Court had one judge before the transfer of new judge Thom Ligowe late last year.
President Peter Mutharika last appointed two judges in July last year which brought the number to 26. n