IRLI’s Coordinator and Director Visit to Malawi, May 2014

IRLI’s Director and Coordinator Visit Malawi, May 2014

This year has been a very exciting year for the Malawi project as we have secured funding for the next three years from Irish Aid and the Human Dignity Foundation. This will now allow the project to expand the scope of our current activities as well as providing new opportunities for additional volunteers. We are currently seeking a Programme Officer for the project and expect to be recruiting new Programme Lawyers by the end of the year. We were also delighted that Jane O’Connell, who has been with the project since April 2013, recently accepted the position of IRLI’s Project Coordinator in Malawi. Programme Lawyers Morgan Crowe and Sarah Houlihan, who joined us in March, have been doing great work in the Legal Aid Department and Sarah has recently taken up the placement in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution which was vacant during the recent presidential elections.

In addition to this I had the opportunity, together with IRLI Director Mary Keane Deputy Director General of the Law Society, to travel to visit the project in Malawi in May. It was an important time in the project to make the trip as we were able to meet with some of our key partners to renew our commitments for the next three years. It also allowed the team to show Mary and I the scope of the work that is being done.

L-R: IRLI Director Mary Keane, former Malawian DPP Mr. Bruno Kalemba, IRLI team Sarah Houlihan, Jane O'Connell and Morgan Crowe

L-R: IRLI Director Mary Keane, former Malawian DPP Mr. Bruno Kalemba, IRLI team Sarah Houlihan, Jane O’Connell and Morgan Crowe

Malawi is a beautiful country and the welcoming nature of Malawians does much to earn it its name the – ‘Warm Heart of Africa’- a bit like Ireland’s Cead Mile Failte. However, life in Malawi is very difficult for a majority of the population and as one of the world’s poorest countries, over 60% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 (under €1) per day. The people who find themselves in the country’s prisons are therefore often the poorest and most vulnerable of society.

Mary and I were really thrown in at the deep end on the first day when we were brought to visit Maula adult prison and Kachere juvenile detention centre to observe the lawyers at work with the prison and police officers, paralegals and prisoners. The team was greeted warmly everywhere they went and their work in the prisons was really welcomed and praised by the local colleagues. Malawi is crippled by capacity and resource challenges and the criminal justice system does not escape this reality. IRLI therefore works closely with the Legal Aid Department, PASI (Paralegal Advisory Service Institute), Ministry of Justice and Malawi Police Service on a daily basis to address some of the many challenges. Mary and I saw how the IRLI lawyers physically searched through folders of charge sheets to identify remandees eligible for a camp court in Maula prison where they would have the opportunity to apply for bail.

Jane and Morgan working with PASI paralegal Peter Chinkota and Legal Aid paralegal Monica Phiri in Maula Adult prison

Jane and Morgan working with PASI paralegal Peter Chinkota and Legal Aid paralegal Monica Phiri in Maula Adult prison

At the end of the week we observed the camp court in practice, which involved a Magistrate coming into the prison to process these applications, and we witnessed how legal literacy provided by PASI empowered the remandees to request variations of bail if they were too high – as is often the case. In many instances remandees in Maula have come from remote rural areas where the cost of securing bail sureties is prohibitively high. Screening for this camp court also involved interviews for the first time for IRLI with female remadees, of whom there are few, and ultimately following up with a number of cases which had stalled due to some of the women having nobody to represent them. 13 accused persons appeared before the Magistrate that day.

In addition to the direct work in Maula adult prison and Kachere juvenile detention centre, the lawyers are also hugely involved in providing training for magistrates and police officers. We attended a one-day training which was organised by IRLI and facilitated by the Senior Resident Magistrate and a Judge of the High Court. The training was focused on jurisdiction and sentencing and highlighted the fact that there are instances where lower grade magistrates are hearing cases and sentencing outside of their jurisdiction. This is a gross breach of the principles of due process and the rights of the accused and has serious implications for the integrity of the wider criminal justice system. As a result of this workshop, the team is now in discussions with the Ministry of Justice to develop additional training sessions.

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Sarah Houlihan facilitating the discussion with Magistrates during a Break-Out session

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Senior Resident Magistrate Chirwa (with the assistance of Chief Resident Magistrate, Ruth Chinangwa) spoke on jurisdiction while High Court Judge, Justice Ivy Kamanga spoke on sentencing. 13 magistrates attended the training.

 At the end of week Mary and I travelled with the team out to the rural community of Chitugula Traditional Authority to observe a Community Sensitisation workshop. These workshops are organised together with PASI, local police and social welfare officers. The aim is to educate local communities about bail and their rights, but also about what constitutes various offences under the law. There was a very large turnout from the community, and it was wonderful also to see Legal Aid paralegal, Milward, volunteering his time to participate.

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Mary at Community workshopLAD paralegal Milward

The visit was an eye opening experience and reinforced my belief in the incredible work that is being done by the IRLI lawyers in Malawi. Aside from the targeted activities that the team implements, there are always multiple other matters and situations which compete for their attention and time. One of our team in fact spent most of the week trying to secure an early discharge for a juvenile who was gravely ill and in hospital. It is a sad fact that for many the conditions in the public hospital are not much better than those in the prison. This was a very emotional case and ultimately the young person was released and was able to go home with his family where he sadly passed away the following week.

Throughout all the activities, IRLI would not be able to do the work without the continued support of our partners and local colleagues who are really advocating for change. Police Officers Fanny and Chao, who assist with the Diversion Training for Police Officers, are perfect examples of this. As are Gift and Innocent, two young Malawians who facilitate IRLI’s ‘Mwai Wosinthika’ Life Skills Education Programme for juvenile offenders and at risk youth. PASI paralegal Peter Chinkota was with us all week as he assisted with the preparations for the Maula camp court and the Chitugula community sensitisation, as well as the paralegals and advocates in Legal Aid that work with the IRLI team to process cases.  I could go on but I think it is enough to say that all of our volunteers, since the project’s early beginnings in 2011 up to now have successfully established strong relationships with the people that we work with and it really is a joint effort, a partnership.

The work is challenging but rewarding and as our project grows,the small team in Malawi is really having a big impact.

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L-R: IRLI Project Coordinator Jane, IRLI Coordinator Emma Dwyer, Innocent Kagwamminga, IRLI Director Mary Keane and Gift Kachigamba

Officer Fanny Chimbaya and Yotamu Chaoaine with IRLI Director Mary Keane and IRLI Coordinator Emma Dwyer

Officers Fanny Chimbaya and Yotamu Chaoaine with IRLI Director Mary Keane and IRLI Coordinator Emma Dwyer

 

This project is largely funded by Irish Aid and the Human Dignity Foundation