It’s now over three months since we first arrived in Malawi and time is flying. The project has really started to take off thanks especially to the support of our partner organisations the Legal Aid Department and the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. Sonya and Ruth are the programme lawyers hosted by the Legal Aid Department. I am the programme lawyer hosted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Being based with different organisations has certainly added another dimension to our project and allows us to work within the criminal justice system from different angles.
Work with the DPP’s office will focus on a number of areas such as file progression, training and support to paralegals and police prosecutors. The DPP’s office has a considerable workload and is in need of additional resources. Lawyers in the DPP’s office are responsible for prosecuting serious crimes before the High Court. DPP paralegals prosecute more minor crimes such as road traffic offences. Police prosecutors are responsible for prosecuting the majority of cases before the Magistrates Court.
In light of the fact that 90% of the prosecutorial workload is handled by the police prosecutors, I have begun to focus my work at Lilongwe Police Station. I have spent some time attending Magistrates Court with the prosecutors and assisting at the custody desk at the police station. By working with the police officers in this manner, we can together identify training needs and new approaches to prosecuting cases. One area that has been well received by police officers and magistrates the implantation of a diversion programme. Our work here will compliment the diversion training provided by the Catholic Commission for Justice and peace. Sonya recently blogged about this.
A diversion programme is a form of restorative justice whereby offenders are diverted from being charged (a decision made by the police) or tried (a decision made by the prosecutor or magistrate). The legal basis for diversion is set out in Malawi Constitution, Criminal Procedure and Evidence Code and Child Care, Protection and Justice Act. The main purpose of diversion is to rehabilitate the offender and to give reparation to the victims of crime. The benefits of diversion are many and recent studies show that participation in restorative justice practices can have a significant impact on the reoffending rates of some offenders and can provide benefits to victims. In addition, diversion helps reduce the pressures on the formal criminal justice system by reducing numbers in prison and the workload of the police prosecutors.
With clear benefits to all actors in the criminal justice system it is encouraging to note that I have already observed some examples of diversion. An offender who stole an umbrella was diverted from court by agreeing to pay a fine and return the stolen item. Another offender who had stolen money from his business partners was diverted from court on agreeing to repay the sum in instalments. While these offences may seem quite minor it is important to highlight that we have observed a juvenile receiving a five year sentence for bicycle theft.
Our diversion programme is still in the early stages of implementation. Thanks to the support received by our colleagues at the DPP’s office and the enthusiasm of the police officers, we are hopeful that the programme will offer an alternative approach for prosecutors and magistrates and a second chance to first time offenders.
I’ll keep you posted on how it develops!