A few weeks ago, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Fahad Assani was guest of honour during the Malawi Law Society (MLS) 2014 conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Mangochi. One of the issues Assani raised was that some lawyers swindle their clients’ money.
However, there are other concerns about lawyers. Some of them lack integrity and are corrupt. For many Malawians, they find it extremely difficult to seek justice in a court of law because they cannot afford to pay astronomical legal fees. Lawyers charge a lot of money for their services.
They can charge as much as K10 000 or more per hour which translates to anything between K80 000 and K200 000 per day. How they calculate these legal fees is known to themselves! Incidentally, Assani himself reportedly charged government K25 000 per hour in the treason case involving Peter Mutharika and some DPP former cabinet ministers.
Owing to the high levels of poverty and illiteracy, the majority of Malawians are unable to access justice. Legal fees are just too high. So, hiring a lawyer is a huge challenge. This has been a failure of justice system because justice is available only to a privileged few, those who can afford to pay high fees. Some suspects are remanded in custody for months, if not years, without trial because they do not have legal representation while the rich and politicians easily access legal services because they afford exorbitant fees.
Unlike in South Africa where there are a number of NGOs in the legal sector that assist the poor and marginalised people to access justice on pro bono basis, Malawi does not have any. The Legal Aid Department (to be called “Legal Aid Bureau”) in the Ministry of Justice is the only hope to assist the poor. Unfortunately, it is poorly funded and publicity is non-existent, and so many people are unable to utilise its services.
Considering the huge legal fees that government pays commercial lawyers, it would be a huge relief for ordinary people if government can employ as many lawyers as possible in the Legal Aid Department. Lawyers representing government in the treason case have submitted a staggering K25 million bill for the initial work done. One shudders to think how much government is going to fork out when the case is concluded.
By charging high fees, lawyers give the impression that law is more important than any other profession. Yet law is just like any other profession. It is just that people have different career paths and want to pursue their dreams; people choose what they want to become. There is nothing special about studying any course. Anyone can do it. Medicine, for instance, is a profession that is held in very high esteem because it deals with the life of people. Yet private doctors charge affordable medical fees and spend more years studying than those taking law.
Apart from lawyers, who else in Malawi charge K10 000 (K80 000 per day) or K25 000 per hour (K200 000 per day?). It is queer that lawyers should be charging such exorbitant legal fees in the name of dispensing justice. Last year, they were agitating for an increase in the fees when they are already too high.
As some of us see it, lawyers are in big business. Many of them put monetary gains above justice. If justice was a major issue they would have reduced their fees so that their services are accessible to everyone. But the majority of their clients are rich people some of whom pay legal fees from ill-gotten money.