Rupert Bedford visits a legal empowerment project in Malawi that is taking small but important steps to address the chronic lack of criminal justice legal aid provision in the country.
A group of suspects has gathered in the small custody room of Blantyre Police Station in Southern Malawi. Huddled on the floor, they listen quietly and attentively to Elton as he explains their right to bail. They are respectful, hanging on his every word. This is understandable. For right now he offers their only hope of freedom.
Elton Maglassi is a community paralegal. He works for the Centre for Human Rights Education Advice & Assistance (CHREAA), a local NGO. CHREAA is the only source of police station legal aid in the area. It is entirely dependent on overseas aid funding for its existence.
Legal aid for the poorest and most vulnerable people in society is under constant threat around the world, even in the most developed countries. However in many developing countries the lack of basic legal aid contributes to injustice on an almost unimaginable scale.
Legal empowerment projects use a grassroots approach – mobilising communities by training up and deploying teams of grassroots legal advocates, otherwise known as ‘community paralegals’ or ‘barefoot lawyers’, to plug the legal aid gap in their area. In the same way that primary health workers provide frontline health care services in conjunction with doctors, community paralegals provide primary justice services in conjunction with lawyers.
These projects target a wide range of primary justice problems – from criminal justice, community land protection and environmental justice to health rights, citizenship and women’s empowerment as well as other issues.
The Malawi Bail Project is one such project. It was established by english lawyer Charlotte Mackenzie during a two year placement working at CHREAA. It has trained a team of paralegals to provide legal aid services in police stations, prisons and courts.
With only a handful of legal aid lawyers in the whole of Malawi, the vast majority of suspects are brought to court without any form of representation and are unaware of their right to bail. Bail applications are therefore rarely made, even for minor offences, and thousands are detained unnecessarily for months or years. Prisons are overcrowded with insanitary conditions. Families are ripped apart.
Traditional methods of legal aid remain unfeasible. Too few legal aid lawyers and too many suspects. The solution is legal empowerment. By training up CHREAA paralegals to educate suspects in group sessions to submit their own bail applications, the project is able to reach a wider audience and make a much greater impact. An imperfect situation perhaps, but an innovative solution.
The key was to focus on a specific area; in this case bail, thereby increasing the potential for an understanding of law and practice by both paralegal and suspect.
Paralegals are not a new concept. Law firms around the world have increasingly used them as low paid support workers. However community paralegals are different. They typically work for civil society groups and tend to be locals drawn from the community they serve. As a result they are afforded greater autonomy and responsibility and exhibit a strong commitment to the community as their client.
Legal empowerment projects are not confined to Malawi. They are emerging in response to the legal aid crisis in developing countries around the world. And organisations such as Namati are coordinating and growing a global network of practitioners in the field.
The Malawi Bail Project is ongoing and its work will be needed for years to come. I was reminded of this as we left Chichiri Prison following an afternoon advice session. Elton tells me that one of the inmates had been held on remand there, on a relatively minor offence, for over two years without ever once having made an application for bail. They will be taking the case up.
Rupert Bedford is a freelance journalist.