The vacancy r a t e at the Legal Aid Bureau, an institution established to provide legal representation to people who cannot afford to pay for the service has reached about 75.6 percent.
In an interview on Thursday, Legal Aid Bureau director Masuko Chamkakala said the bureau currently has 121 people against the establishment warrant of 479.
He said that out of the 121 officers, 25 are lawyers while 34 are paralegals and the bureau intends to recruit 16 additional lawyers and 17 paralegals to start work in October.
Chamkakala said the bureau’s new establishment reviewed last year also indicates that it is supposed to have 64 lawyers and 141 paralegals nationwide.
He said any additional staff to the bureau is welcome as the number of people seeking the service has almost doubled.
Chamkaka l a s a i d : “Additional hands are welcome because the work is there. I can estimate that over 60 percent of the paralegals are going to districts and the lawyers will be drafted in the regions to relieve pressure which is already there.”
He said the lawyer-client ratio at the bureau is at 1: 1 000, meaning one lawyer represents 1 000 clients.
In separate interviews on Thursday, private practice lawyers John- Gift Mwakhwawa and Burton Mhango, who both once served as Malawi Law Society presidents, observed that the bureau’s current status would compromise quality of legal representation and access to legal service meant to be given to people who cannot afford commercial legal practitioners.
On his part, Mwakhwawa said the situation also meant that there is need for opening up the offering of legal education in Malawi so that the country has enough lawyers without necessarily depending on paralegals.
He said: “I don’t have problems with paralegals, but we must look at encouraging other universities to set up law schools as long as they meet bare minimums.
“We should be able to come to a position where every district has qualified legal practitioners at the disposal of Malawians, including available for pro-bono work.”
Mhango attributed the high vacancy rate at the bureau to high staff turnover as lawyers leave the bureau for green pastures.
“History has been that it [bureau] operates with few people. That’s not a healthy situation because it doesn’t deliver the services that many Malawians would want to have,” he said.
Legal Aid Bureau was established under Section 3 of the Legal Aid Act, 2011, with its primary statutory mandate to provide legal aid services to the indigent and vulnerable people in need of legal services