Sonya Donnelly – Lawyer

Lawyers do not generally enjoy the greatest of reputations. Positive images are rarely summoned up in our mind’s eye.

One Cork woman conforms to no negative stereotypes about those who practice law. Sonya Donnelly, originally from Fermoy, has embarked on a mission to help bring something fundamental to the people of Malawi.

The rule of law is something which we all take for granted in Ireland, something about which we wouldn’t think twice. Sonya, as a lawyer, was part of that but is now over a month into a year-long stay in Malawi in southeast Africa.

Like many people though, law wasn’t something she had always dreamed about. Rather, it was something she landed on when she had to choose something on her CAO form.

“In school I was interested in debating and was quite argumentative. I was good at English and history too. Like anyone doing their Leaving Certificate, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do!”, she says.

Luckily, she picked Law in University College Cork, where she started with family law. She then developed an interest in criminal law and human rights farther into the course. After finishing her Bachelors degree, she stayed on to do her postgraduate Masters qualification in Criminal Justice there too.

She says that it was the first programme of its type in Ireland and as part of her studies she sat in on the Wayne O’Donoghue trial a number of years ago.

Afterwards she went to the Kings Inn in Dublin on a scholarship. As part of the scholarship, Sonya got to spend two months at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. It is the highest court of European law. Her time there further piqued her interest in human rights.

“I started volunteering quite a lot and working pro bono at the Public Interest Law Alliance,” she says. She also began working as a barrister and a law lecturer in DIT and Dublin Business School (DBS).


Which all lead her to where she is now, a small office in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. When she heard that they were looking for legal experts to work in Malawi, she was delighted to take part and arrived in Malawi in early August.

She is working on a new project that will aid justice and help to reform the prison service there.

She explains why this is necessary.

“The project is focusing on increased access to legal aid for those within the criminal justice system. On any one day there might not be a qualified legal person in a criminal court, with a policeman acting for the Prosecution, the defendant unrepresented and the Magistrate might not be in any way qualified legally.

“Our project will ensure the rule of law is upheld in the criminal courts. It’s believed that increasing access to legal services will ensure a greater number of prisoners are released on bail, while also decreasing the time spent by those on remand.

“Crucially, we are hoping to ensure that prisoners are monitored so cases are processed quickly, fewer become lost in the system and that legal representation will also result in a decrease of those wrongly convicted.”

She adds: “What drew me was starting from scratch with the pilot project and building something up for the future. I was really interested in it because it’s your vision and you get to see how a project would roll out.”

She loves the work so far, which is varied. Her time so far has been spent “monitoring and evaluating bail applications, attending criminal justice meetings and giving training sessions to young Malawian legal students”.

At the moment, she and her two Irish colleagues are writing a training manual based on their experiences and attending training sessions that are being given, to see what the current training is like.

There are a few odd things about the Malawian justice system, she says.

“Many of the judges, those called ‘lay magistrates’, have no law training whatsoever. Their powers though, are great – they can imprison people for up to 25 years.

“I’ve been meeting with people that have been in prison for five or six years, that have never seen a lawyer. Defendants in Malawi face physical, financial and language barriers to legal representation.”

She adds that most are rural defendants that don’t speak English, the language of the court. Defendants without legal representation might often languish in custody for longer than the maximum sentence for the crime they are accused of.

“If the authorities think they have a good chance of conviction, they try defendants quickly,” she says. Unfortunately the reverse is also true, so the more likely you are to be innocent, the longer it might take to get to trial.

One of their goals there is to identify those who are languishing longest in jails and bring them to trial as quickly as possible. Five days ago, legal aid brought in a case to them of someone imprisoned since 2004 without trial. The case will now go to trial next week.

You can follow Sonya on the Irish Rule of Law blog on


By Brian Hayes Curtin, The Cork Independent

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