New IRLI Lawyers Tackle Camp Courts

On 13 May, IRLI facilitated the first ‘Camp Court’ of 2013 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. 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 conducted by a PASI 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 12 remandees came before the magistrate, the majority of whom were charged with theft-related offences. Of these 12, the majority were released on a bail of their own surety or offered to pay compensation to the victim, while one accused received a suspended sentence and was released. Furthermore, as a result of IRLI’s intervention during the screening phase, a further 10 remandees have experienced progress in their case, with future court hearings being set. In total, 22 remandees experienced increased access to justice through the holding of one Camp Court.

Of particular note during the hearing 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 be a part of the process was also evident in their words and expressions after the hearing as they left the courtroom, which was located within the grounds of Maula prison.

As well as facilitating access to justice, through the Camp Court process IRLI seeks to trigger other positive ramifications for the Malawian justice system. As a result of the remandees being released from pre-trial detention, it contributes to assuaging the serious congestion and overcrowding problem in Maula, since the prison system will have less inmates to care for and accommodate. Furthermore, the released remandees will not continue to be exposed to the unhealthy prison environment that exists. The inadequate dietary intake, unsanitary conditions and poor healthcare facilities regularly cause what are normally avoidable health complications.

IRLI will continue to facilitate camp courts in Maula Adult Prison and Kachere Juvenile Prison in the coming months, including targeting homicide remandees who have been on remand for five years and more.

By Paul Bradfield, Programme Lawyer with the Malawi Project