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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.