Funding hiccups continue to cripple the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), a governance institution that provides free legal services to the masses, forcing it to suspend defending homicide suspects in the country, officials have confirmed.
The bureau’s director Masauko Chamkakala, speaking in an interview on Thursday, said LAB has since written the registrar of the High Court of Malawi and Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal notifying him of the development as procedure requires that a notice on non-appearance be filed.
He said the suspension is just one of the activities suffering at the bureau due to inadequate funding, but it stands out because “it is an important exercise that is carried out by the bureau and the State and secondly, because everyone who is being charged with homicide is supposed to have legal representation”.
However, despite such being the case, the bureau has managed to defend 10 702 cases from March 2015 to March 2016, including those registered way back in 2005 when the bureau was still operating as Legal Aid Department under the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
Said Chamkakala: “As of last week, when we submitted our annual report to the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament, we have resolved 10 702 cases. Among those cases, 3 227 are from Blantyre, 2 826 are from Lilongwe and 4 649 are from Mzuzu.”
In the meantime, Malawi Law Society (MLS) has asked Treasury to take immediate measures to provide LAB with adequate funding to execute its functions of providing justice to the people who cannot afford legal representation.
In a statement released on Tuesday signed by MLS president John Suzi-Banda and honorary secretary Khumbo Bonzoe Soko, the society said it had noted “the erratic and extremely inadequate funding” provided to the bureau.
Reads in part the MLS statement: “The bureau is one of our Republic’s key governance institutions that offer free legal services to poor and indigenous citizens who, sadly, constitute the majority of Malawians. The society has learnt that as a result of the acute funding challenges, the bureau has suspended its defence of homicide suspects.
“The consequence will be that some of these people will spend even longer periods of time in pre-trial custody. This situation is a serious violation of the rights of detained and accused persons.”
By January 27 this year, LAB was one of government agencies which had not yet received funding for December and was yet to get funding for the month of January.
The bureau was allocated about K384 million ($531 120) in the 2015/16 National Budget.
It is expected to receive K168 million ($232 365) for operations of head office in Lilongwe and regional offices in Blantyre and Mzuzu for activities such as civil litigation, homicide cases, prosecution, legal advisory services and general administration.
About K116 million ($160 443) was allocated to salaries and allowances whose disbursement is assured and K100 million ($138 313) for the procurement of motor vehicles for the 2015/16 financial year, according to budget documents.
In January, Chamkakala confirmed that as a consequence of not receiving December funding, the bureau had been operating on about K14 million ($19 634) which Treasury remitted to them last November for office supplies, payment of utility bills, fuel, maintenance of vehicles and internal travel.
During yesterday’s interview, Chamkakala indicated that the bureau only got the January funding as December was not funded. He added that funding for March to the agency has not yet come and when it comes, LAB will assume it is for April. n