Despite several interventions to ensure that every person has access to justice, many poor families continue to struggle to access justice. Malawi Law Society (MLS) has intervened through legal clinics to reduce the gap. Our Reporter ALBERT SHARRA caught up with MLS executive member Burton Mhango to explain the project.
MLS has been going into the rural areas meeting villagers who cannot access justice to help them. What prompted this initiative?
As you may be aware MLS has a statutory mandate to assist the public in matters of the law. Often times, members of the MLS get involved in various activities and engagements to fulfill that mandate. As a society we are aware that there are many people who need legal services. We also understand that many Malawians cannot afford legal services because of a number of reasons including cost of the services. So in this particular programme, we aim at reaching out to as many people as possible, who require legal services, but they are unable to secure them because they cannot manage to pay for them. We have partnered with Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wilsa) and Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa) which has made available some funds to enable participating lawyers to travel to different areas to conduct the legal clinics. I would not necessarily call our visits to rural areas as hunting. What we do in rural areas is to make ourselves as lawyers and our services available accessible and to the people and for free. The MLS needs to assist Malawians who cannot afford the services of lawyers.
What is the target audience in this initiative?
We do not have particular kind of clients that we are looking for. When we get to the rural areas we set up and conduct what we call “legal clinic” Any person who has any issues that he/she feels require legal advice is free to come to the clinic and meet a lawyer. We are not targeting a particular number of people. So far, we have visited Mzuzu Prison, Mangochi Prison, Zomba Prison and Makwasa Prison in Thyolo. The intention of the MLS is that the project grows and many lawyers should volunteer to participate so that it reaches many parts of the country. The sustainability of the projects of course depends on the availability of funding.
What are the major issues coming out during these legal clinics?
The major issues that have so far been identified are land disputes, gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination based on various kinds of disabilities. We have identified a number of needed clients. We intend to take further action to assist them including court representations.
How big is the gap in access to justice by the poor Malawians?
We have not conducted research for us to be able to provide you with statistical estimates on that. However, you may be aware that currently we have about 350 qualified lawyers in Malawi. In relation to the population of the country the number is very small. Furthermore, lawyers, just like all other professionals such as, accountants, medical doctors etc charge for their services, and most people cannot easily afford their services because of that.
There is the Legal Aid which is mandated to offer pro-bono legal services, how relevant is your initiative?
We are aware that the Legal Aid is limited in many ways such that it may not be able to effectively assist all people who are in real need for legal services. Our role is to supplement the Legal Aid Bureau.
Apart from legal clinics, what else is your office doing to ensure everyone has access to justice?
The Malawi Law Society also conducts public lectures on selected topics. We also do regular publications in the daily papers teaching the public some aspects of the law.