Thursday, 27 January 2011

The role of local courts in Malawi

The government believes that local courts in Malawi will increase access to justice. Malawi is not a rich country and many people, particularly poor, rural people, are unable to access the system designed to protect them. The idea of local courts makes sense. Access to justice is a key part of maintaining a fair democratic system. Local courts would function as a parallel system to magistrates courts and be presided over by "chiefs or lay persons". The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs also claims these courts will "help reduce backlog of minor cases in magistrate courts like witchcraft cases".

Opposition groups, media and human rights groups in Malawi are concerned, however, that these courts could end up playing an entirely different role, a role similar to that played by local courts the last time round, when as Traditional Courts they were used to silence political opposition during one-party rule in the country.

One concern is the scope of these courts. There is concern that they will be able to charge people unusual crimes such as "disturbing religious assemblies, trespassing on burial places, insulting the modesty of women" or "writing or uttering words with intent to wound religious feelings," among many others. Also, "fouling the air".

Others are concerned that the scope will be far broader than this, giving these courts too much power:
The courts will also have authority to hear cases of theft, criminal trespass and some crimes under the Criminal Procedures and Evidence Code, the Local Government Act, the Public Health Act, the Business Licencing Act, the Liquor Act, the Employment Act and the Road Traffic Act, among several others. 
Perhaps the most important concern is very specifically that these courts will take the country back to the era when Traditional Courts were blatantly used to victimise political opponents. Those who experienced the tyranny of the courts the last time around are particularly concerned that it shouldn't happen again.

The bill will be tabled when the Malawian parliament begins sitting on Monday and is likely to produce heated debate.

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