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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Maula Prison Camp Court - Bringing Access to Justice to the Accused

On 13 May 2013, Irish Rule of Law International (IRLI) facilitated the first ‘camp court’ of the year in Maula Adult Prison, Lilongwe. A ‘camp court’ is essentially a fully functioning court session which is located within the physical grounds of the prison with a view to bringing justice to the accused persons who are being held in pre-trial detention. Facilitating these court hearings is a key project objective for IRLI, as the regular court system suffers from a lack of resources and cannot process the cases of accused persons in a timely fashion. Camp Courts therefore serve to expedite the justice process by giving remandees access to justice, many of whom are being held in illegal detention as their remand periods have elapsed. Like an ordinary formal court setting, the key stakeholders were present on the day, including the magistrate, court clerk, social and community officer, the prosecutor, paralegals and the accused.

Prior to the court hearing, newly joined IRLI Programme lawyers Jane O’Connell and Paul Bradfield liaised with the Social and Community Officer to select and screen suitable remand candidates for the camp court, with this particular session targeting those charged with minor offences who wished to apply for bail. On the morning of the hearing, the remandees were sensitised in legal literacy led by a PASI (Paralegal Advisory Service Institute) paralegal. They were informed about the purpose of the hearing, how the process would run and what the legal and practical significance was of applying for and receiving bail.

During the hearing, a total of twelve remandees came before the magistrate, the majority of whom were charged with theft-related offences. Of these twelve, seven were released on bail, three who had already been convicted were each handed a suspended sentence of six months and two had charges dismissed as the accused persons had agreed to pay compensation to the victim in each particular case. All twelve were released on the same day. In addition, and as a result of IRLI’s intervention during the screening phase, a further ten remandees have experienced progress in their case. Some had already been taken to court, some had been released from prison and others had a date set for a trial court.  In total, twenty-two remandees experienced access to justice and due process through the holding of this one camp court by IRLI.

Of particular note during the hearings was the visibly engaged demeanor and impressive level of interaction witnessed on the part of the remandees. With the majority of them being first-time offenders, prior to participating in the legal literacy session facilitated by IRLI, they had no prior knowledge or direct experience with the formal legal system. To consequently witness them display the confidence to constructively engage in dialogue with the magistrate regarding their personal circumstances and ability to adhere to bail conditions was extremely positive. Their gratitude at being given an opportunity to be heard and to be a part of the process was also evident in their words and expressions after the hearing as they left the ‘courtroom’.

As well as facilitating access to justice through the camp court process, IRLI seeks to trigger other positive ramifications for the Malawian criminal justice system. As a result of the remandees being released from pre-trial detention, it contributes to the alleviation of the serious congestion and overcrowding problems in Maula. The released remandees will also no longer be exposed to the serious health risks existing within the prison resulting from inadequate dietary intake, unsanitary conditions and poor healthcare facilities.

IRLI will continue to facilitate camp courts in Maula Adult Prison and Kachere Juvenile Prison in the coming months including targeting cases which involve more serious offences including homicide. 

Monday, February 11, 2013


A key component of the Irish Rule of Law International (‘IRLI’) ‘Access to Justice’ project has been its partnership with the Malawi Police Services. Since September 2011 an IRLI programme lawyer has worked in conjunction with the main Police Station in Lilongwe to implement a diversion programme and provide legal advice and assistance to officers in the police station. IRLI has delivered a number of workshops to officers on the use of diversion and legislative updates in criminal procedure. Diversion is a type of restorative justice principle, which literally “diverts” offenders away from the formal criminal justice system. This is the first time an international NGO has been granted such access to a police station.

Our work would not have been possible without the commitment and dedication of police officers within the Lilongwe Police Station. Sub-Inspector Fanny Chimbaya and Constable Yotamu Chaonaine have attended and participated in IRLI workshops. Both officers have agreed to share how the interaction with IRLI has impacted their careers within the Malawi Police Services.

Sub-Inspector Chimbaya and Constable Yotamu Chaonaine
When I asked Mr Chaonaine what was the greatest change he had seen in the police station as a result of our presence, he said  “diversion is now a reality in our police station. Your presence has helped officers to implement what they learnt at the IRLI training. Stand-alone training would not have achieved this”.  Mr Chaonaine said due to the shortage of lawyers in Malawi the police officers never had a qualified lawyer to spend time with police officers to identify cases that are suitable for diversion and the legal basis which permitted police officers to use this tool in combatting crime. This commitment by IRLI to provide a lawyer has greatly increased the skills of police officers. Mrs Chimbaya echoed this sentiment and said ‘after the training we had the skills to talk to our superiors about cases that were suitable for diversion’. Mrs Chimbaya says the use of diversion means that because minor cases are now dealt with at the police station, limited resources such as fuel, paper and police time can be concentrated on more serious offences. 

Mrs Chimbaya and Mr Chaonaine were also instrumental in the success of the IRLI/Venture Trust ‘Mwai Wosinthika – Diversion Aftercare Program’.  Both officers volunteered personal time to teach young people life skills to assist in the risk of recidivism by them. Mrs Chimbaya says “It makes me happy when I see young people returning to school and their excitement about their futures. Engagement with young people has positive consequences for the community because it reduces animosity between families”. Mr Chaonaine said he also learnt from participating in the program by the importance placed on the motto ‘PLAN-DO-REVIEW’ in his approach to his work.  Resulting from their dedication and commitment IRLI supported the application by Mrs Chimbaya and Mr Chaonaine to participate in the Commonwealth Scholarship Fellowship Program with Venture Trust.  We are delighted that they have been successful and will be travelling to Scotland with Venture Trust later this year.  We wish you every success!

Mrs Chimbaya and Mr Chaonaine have continued to excel in their knowledge of diversion and restorative justice and delivered two of IRLI’s diversion workshops to their fellow officers. When asked about this Mrs Chimbaya said ‘I now have the ability to deliver a training workshop on diversion. I can explain to my fellow officers what diversion means, when it is suitable to be used and how diverted cases should be recorded. I no longer fear approaching my superiors about cases because I have the confidence to articulate to them what is involved and the legal basis for my actions’. Mr Chaonaine expressed his gratitude to IRLI, he said ‘IRLI has developed my skills to present on this topic. A year ago I would not have had the confidence to deliver a workshop, especially to officers of a senior rank’.
Constable Chaonaine speaking at an IRLI Police
Training Workshop at Kanengo Police Station

Sub Inspector Chimbaya speaking at an IRLI Police
Training Workshop at Kanengo Police Station


Group Photo from the IRLI Police Training Workshop
at Kanengo Police Station

For my part the officers have been a constant guide to me and assist greatly on a daily basis in achieving the goals which IRLI has set with regards the ‘Access to Justice’ program.  There is plenty more work to be done but with the continued support by the Malawi Police Services it is certainly achievable.    

By Eithne Lynch, Program Lawyer, Irish Rule of Law International

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Homicide Remandees meet the High Court

In an unprecendented move the High Court of Malawi in the country’s capital Lilongwe has moved into Maula prison to conduct homicide trials. Her Ladyship Justice Chombo together with Court staff, the Legal Aid Department and the Director of Public Prosecutions attended Maula on 5th and 12th December 2012 to start work on the backlog of homicide cases.

Justice Chombo attended an IRLI training session for Magistrates in November 2012. Upon hearing our experiences in Maula, where we are working with men who have been awaiting trial for up to 7 years on remand and have never been to Court, she suggested we work together to address these problems.

A situation had arisen in Malawi’s courts where most of the homicide cases that are brought to Court are from 2011 and 2012. Cases from 2006 were being overlooked. The men who had been charged in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and onward did not believe they would get to Court and had accepted their fate to remain in prison on remand. While the Legal Aid Department has a mandate to act for these people, the department is hugely over stretched and it only deals with cases sent forward by the DPP.  These ‘long term remandees’ were the forgotten people stuck in an overcrowded criminal justice system.

IRLI lawyers since August 2011, together with Legal Aid, has brought many bail applications to the High Court for those “forgotten prisoners”. All applications were successful and work was done to  locate sureties in order to secure the conditional release of these people. In some cases where a person had been waiting over 7 years and not once gone to court, the High Court granted bail and went as far as to say the State should prosecute the case within 6 months or the Court will consider them discharged.

It got to a point however where IRLI was bringing more bail applications for these old cases than there were trials being held to prosecute the cases. Due to the high volume of people on remand awaiting trial, Justice Chombo thought the best course of action would be to take the court to the prisoners and start work on this backlog.

The courts that are held in prison are known as camp courts. Camp courts are ad hoc courts held within the prisons to bring justice directly to pre-trial detainees. They run regularly as a initiative of PASI (Paralegal Advisory Service) for those who are charged with minor offences. A Magistrate and a prosecutor will attend the prison and conduct a court with PASI paralegals assisting those pre-trial detainees. It is unusual for a camp court to be held for homicide trials, but the exercise has been a success.

The EU Democratic Governance Programme, who funds alot of work within the Justice sector in Malawi, has agreed to fund the running of these courts so the back log of cases can be cleared.

As a result of these camp courts 20 cases were brought to Court and these 20 people have been released from pre-trial detention.  Some were convicted, some acquitted and others dicharged for want of prosecution. In one case where the State failed to obtain a medical report, the Court decided that he should be discharged after being held in pre-trial detention since October 2006. In another case the prisoner was sentenced to 4 years,which was backdated. As he had been in custody for 5 years, he had served his time and was released immediately.

This is a big step forward in Malawi where the High Court is actively working to ensure access to justice for all those in pre-trial detention.

By Ruth Dowling, Programme Lawyer with the Malawi Project