Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has joined stakeholders calling for amendment of the Legal Aid Act to allow paralegals to represent clients in lower courts.
MHRC made the stand during a public hearing on access to justice that the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament held on Thursday in Lilongwe with focus on legal representation for vulnerable people in the country.
The hearing was also attended by Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Gender and Justice Unit and Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Prisons Inspectorate, Judiciary and other stakeholders that also added weight to calls to allow paralegals some limited space to represent clients in lower courts.
MHRC director of Civil and Political Rights Peter Chisi said some people have found themselves in jail because of lack of legal representation.
He added that most professional lawyers are found in cities and it becomes hard for poor people in rural areas to access them. He said paralegal officers can help cover the gap as they are also based in districts.
“The commission supports the move to amend some laws and allow paralegals limited space to represent people in lower courts,” he said.
He said in other countries, including Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa, paralegals are accepted in court.
South Africa and Zimbabwe have a recognised paralegal training programme and minimum standards for one to practise as a paralegal; hence, a need for Malawi to take the same path.
The stakeholders said most people cannot afford legal representation because there are few lawyers in the country whose fees are exorbitant.
They argued that the poor suffer as the rich are able to hire lawyers, which they said, affects access to justice for the poor.
Recently, the Malawi Law Society objected to having paralegals represent people arguing it will compromise standards and in a statement it questioned the path taken to amend the law.
But CCJP project officer Tuntufye Simwimba said Malawi is far from reaching the acceptable lawyer client ratio; hence, the need to open up for paralegals to represent people in lower courts.
The standard ratio is 1 lawyer to 1 944 people but the situation in Malawi is one lawyer to 30 612 people.
“According to the Bar International Association, for a country to be able to effectively administer justice, the ratio for lawyer to people should be at least one lawyer to at least 1 944 clients,” said Simwimba.
To meet the required standards, the country needs at least 9 259 licensed lawyers. Currently, there are 627 licensed lawyers.