- Society registers 271 complaints
- Committee recommends K68m for restitution
Fraudulent and other improper transactions continue to haunt the country’s legal fraternity.
According to statistics, last year the Malawi Law Society (MLS) had 271 active files of complaints against the country’s 600 registered legal practitioners.
The complaints relate to professional negligence, overcharging clients, failure to remit funds and refund deposits, acting without instructions and failure to hand over files to clients when required, among others.
A report by MLS disciplinary committee that Weekend Nation has seen shows that of the 271 complaints, 116 relate to overcharging, non remittance of clients’ funds and failure to refund deposits, 146 concern lawyers who failed to hand over files to clients or lack of proper update of files, five are for professional negligence while four are about acting without instructions.
According to the report, 84 were recorded in 2018, 58 in 2017 and 129 in 2015 and 2016.
In 2017 the disciplinary committee handled 21 cases and 42 were handled in 2018—through conduct meetings while seven were through disciplinary hearings. Of the total only two were found to be without merit.
A conduct meeting is a private preliminary hearing where the committee informs the concerned lawyer about the complaint to ensure he or she understands the consequences of his or her actions.
The disciplinary committee recommended restitution of K68 million to 23 complainants out of which the lawyers have only compensated K49.9 million, leaving an amount of K18.1 million.
According to the report, the committee fully resolved a total of 29 complaints and scheduled 41 cases for disciplinary hearings.
“For the seven complaints that went for disciplinary hearings, the committee recommended to the AG [Attorney General] that three legal practitioners be admonished for unlawfully withholding clients’ money,” reads part of the report.
During the MLS annual conference and general meeting in Mangochi last weekend, a member of the previous disciplinary committee Isaac Songea said of the 271 cases, five legal practitioners had each more than 10 complaints leveled against them while the rest had between one and 10 complaints against them.
The MLS disciplinary committee which also had Agness Sentala as a member was headed by former Solicitor General Janet Banda.
It was established under Section 37 of the repealed Legal Education and Legal Practitioners Act (Lelpa) to inquire into the conduct of lawyers.
In an interview on Thursday, Banda said her committee only handled 70 cases because they were the only files ready during the period.
She said: “The Law Society brings the matters to the disciplinary committee and these are the files we handled because they are the matters that were brought to the attention of our committee.”
Songea reported that during the two years they were in office, they faced a lot of challenges one of which was backlog of cases.
“Most of the [back log of] complaints bordered on money that was received by lawyers but not remitted or completely embezzled by a legal practitioner … It was very difficult for the committee to handle all the 271 cases during the past two years, it was just a bit too much,” he said.
However, MLS newly elected president Burton Mhango said although the figures could sometimes paint a disconsolate image of the occupation, majority of lawyers conduct their businesses in “exceedingly professional and ethical fashion.”
“The figure  only represents the number of queries that may have been lodged with MLS secretariat. Some of such queries in the end do not really turn out to be real issues of misconduct or unprofessionalism.
“However, let me assure you that I will effectively implement the new law with zero tolerance to issues of misconduct. Our members are now aware that the new Legal Education and Legal Practitioners Act has introduced stringent measures to be taken against members who conduct themselves unprofessionally,” he said in an interview.
Under the new Act, the powers of the disciplinary committee have been significantly enhanced in that the committee may now suspend a legal practitioner for a period not exceeding two years, impose a fine on a legal practitioner, admonish a legal practitioner, order a legal practitioner to pay the costs of disciplinary proceedings and order a legal practitioner to pay compensation to a complainant.
Under the new law, once a lawyer is suspended, MLS shall publish the same in the Government Gazette and in at least two newspapers with widest circulation in the country. Further, the lawyer may not be allowed to renew his licence until he or she has complied with penalties imposed by the committee.
The new Act has also increased the number of disciplinary committee members which will now have the Solicitor General and Secretary for Justice, one legal practitioner of not less than 10 years experience (currently James Masumbu), one senior counsel and two members of good standing in society but not legal practitioners to be appointed by the AG. n