It must be a huge relief for President Lazarus Chakwera that the Sadc Summit came and went without any incident. The arrests of a Cabinet minister, an alliance partner and a close aide as the delegates were arriving in Lilongwe threatened to upset tranquillity at a time the region had its attention fixed on us. Thank goodness, nothing unravelled. It has been a good period for the President, but will it last?
Certainly, it has been a bad period for our learned colleagues in robes and wigs since the nation woke up to the reality that the so-called pro bono work lawyers representing the Women Lawyers Association (WLA) did for victims of alleged sexual assaults in Nsundwe at hands of the police is, for want of a better word, a quite expensive pro bono.
That the lawyers who advocated for the case are smiling all the way to the bank, thanks to huge legal costs the taxpayer is expected to cough, in itself, is not news. That the fees are so huge that they even dwarf the compensation the victims received, makes it even more alarming, if not shocking.
It’s also a wakeup call that for the rest of the nation that we have a justice system that permits these controversial legal settlements. It is also another reminder that whatever is legal is not necessary moral or right.
And it is not just the mathematics, but also the moral calculation. Imagine a victim who was sexually assaulted getting K4 million while her rich lawyer pockets K50 million! All these lawyers not only said they were working pro bono, but also received donor funds to support their charitable cause.
But today, without any shame, they are asking our courts to pay them K255 million whereas the 18 victims altogether received K133 million. And we have a Judiciary that consents to such payoffs and more.
The Malawi Law Society was even moved to describe the payout as unusual and strange. But there is nothing strange here. This is how our justice system operates.
Last time, we delved into a similar subject was when the lawyers representing President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice-President Saulos Chilima in the elections case were paid astronomical figures for work which they had also declared to be pro bono. It took a public outcry for the initial amount to be reduced but even then, another group of lawyers claiming to do pro bono work also went away with billions of taxpayers’ money and Treasury ensured they were paid.
Please save your lectures about pro bono work not meaning that costs can be paid— the point really is the astronomical figures which our courts are handing to lawyers with little justification is turning the whole justice system into, what one esteemed colleague described as, monkey business.
WLA has gone to depths to defend this, including throwing around default argument that any criticism is the fault of what it described as “unprofessional, misogynistic and chauvinistic” media which have done a terrible job reporting this. But while we can have an opinion on this and that, the facts are stubborn. How many hours did these women lawyers work and forget their pro-bono imbroglio for once, in their usual work? How much do they charge per hour?
The answer to that will be an indictment not only to the WLA, but also to the Judiciary which for many years has escaped any scrutiny. Judiciary must not only look into the mirror on how it transacts some of its business, but also be placed under a microscope.
This is a Judiciary which makes us proud for defending our rights again and again, but which is happy to jail the poor who steal chickens and goats while aiding and abetting rich thieves to go scot-free for serious crimes that have impoverished this whole nation.
And if anybody was still clinging to this angelic façade of our Judiciary, the judge who first became a renegade for attacking his colleagues for delivering judgements that did not please his fancy, and now is famous for twisting the details of a judgment which he had been tasked to write on behalf of his majority colleagues, is yet another reminder of how wrought with feeble and mere mortals—like any other institution— the Judiciary is.n