Camp Courts Welcome Irish Delegation

L-R Ruth Dowling, Judge Roderick Murphy, His Worship Chimwembe, Eithne Lynch, Caroline O'Connor and Anne-Marie Blaney

L-R Ruth Dowling, Judge Roderick Murphy, His Worship Chimwembe, Eithne Lynch, Caroline O’Connor and Anne-Marie Blaney

Following on from the successful camp court facilitated by IRLI in Maula Adult Prison on 13 May, the Programme Lawyers decided to facilitate another camp court in the prison on 20 May, again focusing on those remandees who had committed minor offences and who wished to apply for bail pending trial. In addition to assisting more remandees to access justice, the second camp court was intended to further alleviate the congestion being experienced in the prison as well as to give IRLI an opportunity to try and improve the processes involved in holding camp courts and legal literacy programmes within prisons themselves, building both on our own recent experiences and on our relationships with our partners and key stakeholders.

The day was particularly noteworthy for many reasons, not least of which was the attendance at the camp court of Mr. Justice Roderick Murphy, who recently retired from the Irish High Court, Anne-Marie Blaney, practising solicitor with the Irish Legal Aid Board, and Caroline O’Connor B.L., who has been seconded from the Office of the Attorney General to work as legal advisor to the Department of Social Protection in Dublin.

IRLI was delighted and honoured to be hosting such highly respected members of the Irish legal profession, who visited Malawi to assist in delivering the IRLI  Workshop on “Restorative Justice and Human Rights Based Approach to Criminal Trials” to forty Malawian magistrates. Before heading to Blantyre, where the workshop was taking place, our Irish colleagues had the opportunity to spend some time with the Programme Lawyers in Lilongwe, where they got to see some of IRLI’s work in practice within the prisons and to meet with some of our local partners and key stakeholders in the Malawian criminal justice system.

In the lead up to the camp court, the Programme lawyers again liaised with the Social and Community Officer, Mr. Winston Phiri, in order to screen remandees and ascertain who among them was eligible to appear before a camp court and whose remand warrant had expired. We, as a team, also tried to build on previous experience and to address some of the challenges which had been identified at the previous camp court.

Dyton conducting the Legal Literacy Training Programme

Dyton conducting the Legal Literacy Training Programme

IRLI is happy to report that the camp court process was significantly improved. One very positive outcome was the improvement made to the legal literacy training programme, held in advance of the camp court. For example, the legal literacy training was carried out in the ‘courthouse’ itself, as opposed to the remand section of the prison which had previously been the case. This allowed the PASI paralegal, Dyton, who facilitated the programme, to deliver the hour long session without interruption, with the added advantage of the remandees being allowed an opportunity to become familiar with the court setting in advance of being called to appear before the magistrate. IRLI must commend Dyton who did an absolutely fantastic job in ensuring that the remandees became familiar, and as comfortable as possible, with the court setting. The remandees were taught about the bail process (including the types of conditions which may be attached to bail) and that bail is a right. The remandees were reassured that PASI and IRLI were there to support and assist them as much as possible and they were given an opportunity to ask any questions which they had in relation to the process. To try and make the remandees more at ease in an unfamiliar setting, IRLI and PASI also facilitated a role play session inside the ‘courthouse’, with the remandees themselves playing out the roles of magistrate, prosecutor, court clerk, etc. This, in particular, was a great success in terms of easing the tension which many had been feeling and even raising a few laughs on what can be an overwhelming and stressful day for those involved.

During the hearings, the Programme Lawyers were delighted to note the significantly increased level of engagement which each remandee had with the court and His Worship Chimwembe, the presiding magistrate. The confidence of the remandees had noticeably increased and it was clear to all those present that the remandees standing before the magistrate were significantly better equipped to represent themselves in court following the improved legal literacy training programme. To see someone, with no prior legal knowledge and little or no experience of the criminal justice system, stand up confidently and make direct eye contact with the magistrate while explaining, using legal terms, why he should be released on bail pending trial was both a humbling and incredible experience. It highlighted that a little time and a little knowledge can go a very long way. It also reaffirmed the importance of IRLI’s work, part of which focuses on providing people with the tools to help themselves.

Three accused before His Worship Chimwembe

Three accused before His Worship Chimwembe

All in all, thirteen remandees appeared before Magistrate Chimwembe and were given access to the justice system. Of those, five were granted bail. While the other eight remandees were denied bail, progress was nevertheless made in each particular case as dates were set for trials over the course of the next few weeks. In addition, during the screening process, IRLI became aware that one of those being held in the remand section of the prison had been convicted but was still awaiting the necessary warrant of commitment to be processed. IRLI, in coordination with the Social and Community Officer, was able to provide assistance. We ensured that the process, which is often forgotten, was completed thereby allowing the particular individual to be transferred to the ‘convicted’ section of the prison and begin serving his sentence immediately.

There are many challenges in the Malawian criminal justice system, not least down to a lack of available resources, but the holding of camp courts within prisons is a great example of how obstacles can be overcome and challenges faced. In mixing a minimum amount of resources with a large amount of goodwill, commitment, cooperation and teamwork, thirteen people were accorded their due process rights and access to justice.

By Jane O’Connell, Programme Lawyer with the Malawi project