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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Magistrates Training – Access to Justice

As part of our ‘Access to Justice’ programme we recognised that there was a clear need to engage with Magistrates.  Magistrates are regarded as the primary gatekeepers of justice with their courts alone presiding over 90% of formal criminal cases in Malawi.  While Magistrates’ Courts can often dispose of cases expeditiously, the ability of such proceedings to adhere to fair trial standards has been limited at times.  This is attributed in part to resource constraints where Magistrates are not supplied with copies of the up to date laws of Malawi, not to mention regional and international instruments relating to human rights standards.

The Programme Lawyers, recognising the resource deficit, took the initiative to draft a ‘Human Rights Handbook’  tailored specifically for Magistrates.  The Handbook covers key areas such as human rights standards, the right to a fair trial, bail, sentencing, restorative justice and the special needs of children who come into conflict with the law.

The Handbook was launched at our first workshop in June, which was officially opened by His Lordship Mzikamanda.  In his foreward, His Lordship Mzikamanda recognised that our Handbook was:
the first step in a collaborative process between the Judiciary and Irish Rule of Law International of ensuring the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are adequately protected by courts.
His Lordship stated in his view that the purpose of the handbook is:
to familiarise Magistrates with existing national, regional and international legal protections regarding the right to liberty and security  of the person and to illustrate how the various legal guarantees, if enforced by Magistrates’ Courts in practice, will protect and safeguard the rights of persons arrested or detained.
All Magistrates within the Lilongwe Area have been provided with a copy of the Handbook.  To ensure proper use of the Handbook, and to explore further areas of interest highlighted by the Magistrates in June, we held a follow up workshop in November.  This coincided with a field visit by Mr Michael Irvine, Director of IRLI.  The workshop provided us with an opportunity to raise our profile and the work we are engaged in.  We were delighted to have opening remarks from a distinguished panel of speakers.  We were joined by Mr Anthony Kamanga SC, Solicitor General and Secretary for Justice, Ms Esme Chombo, President of the High Court and Ms Elizabeth Higgins, Ambassador of Ireland.

Mr Kamanga, SC stated that
access to justice is at the cornerstone of every society, Malawi included.  The justice sector is in the process of implementing a new 5 year Democratic Governance Strategy Plan.  The vision of the Democratic Governance Sector is to ensure a “Malawi that is truly democratic, just, safe, secure and prosperous, in which everyone enjoys their human rights and lives a life of dignity”.  This vision is shared by our colleagues at Irish Rule of Law International as witnessed by the program which they will deliver to you today.
This illustrates that our work is supported and endorsed by our partner the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and we continue to enjoy a fruitful relationship.

Justice Chombo similarly applauded our efforts and commended our Handbook.  She urged the Magistrates to take
time to discuss and reflect on the many facets that will enable better ‘Access to Justice’…to take this workshop very seriously indeed and that the knowledge to be gained in this workshop should enable you to perform better upon return to your duty stations. 
Her Excellency Liz Higgins also commended the efforts being undertaken by IRLI and was keen to impress that our work was in line with the vision shared by the Embassy within Malawi.  Our work is complimentary to similar initiatives being undertaken by the Embassy in the justice sector to help improve democratic governance.

The first half of the workshop consisted of a series of presentations which focused on the Rules of Evidence, Right to a Fair Trial, Sentencing and the Special Protection of Children in Conflict with the Law.  After a break to reflect on the lessons learnt from the morning in the afternoon we held two ‘moot’ courts and divided into four separate groups so that we could put into practice what had been learnt.  For the moot court we were joined by our friends at the Malawi Police Services and the Malawi Social Welfare Services.

We concluded the workshop with a round table discussion from the various stakeholders around the challenges facing meaningful ‘Access to Justice’.  Whilst there were many challenges lack of resources (financial and personnel), capacity and co-ordination; there was unanimous agreement that one of the keys to unlocking the solution was increased communication amongst the stakeholders so that vulnerable persons within the criminal justice system have their human rights protected.

Eithne Lynch