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Analysts demand ACB swift action on ‘rotten’ lawyers, Malawi judiciary corruption

Lilongwe Registry Justice Esmie Chombo
Source: Face Of Malawi.

This material belongs to: Nyasa Times.

Renowned governance analysts in the country have urged the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to ensure swift investigations into revelations of clandestine dealings between some lawyers and court staff to the missing, misplacing or destroying court files so as to frustrate case proceedings.

This follows the letter by Judge president for Lilongwe Registry Justice Esmie Chombo dated January 18, 2018 addressed to Malawi Law Society where she says that her office had been informed that some lawyers pay court staff to misplace or destroy a court file so as to frustrate case proceedings.

The judge also complains that court reporters and secretaries abandon legitimate court work to do typing and printing for some lawyers who offer them money for the services, a development which she says is “clearly unacceptable”.

“The court staff is lured with money to: prioritize work for certain legal houses; remove documents of counsel representing the other party so as to mislead the court that the party failed to file the necessary documents prior to the date of hearing; insert documents in files when the same was not done at the right time to give the impression that the same was filed at the right time; open a new file and present the matter as a fresh one before a different judge, when the last judge handling the matter had declined an application that counsel was seeking”, reads part of the letter signed by Chombo.

Executive director of Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) Timothy Mtambo said its disappointing that there are such activities to frustrate the justice process.

“We are getting rotten as a country in all aspects. For sure the Judiciary must be the last one. Those so called lawyers and their servants in the Judiciary who are unethical must be investigated and punished. Indeed, ACB must come in as this issue is a very serious one requiring urgency. I have seen people crying for justice for years now because they were told their files are missing and that there was nothing that could be done. This is real. It is a violation of access to justice”, said the outspoken Mtambo.

Added Makhumbo Munthali, former national secretary of the Ethics, Peace and Justice Commission of Evangelical Association of Malawi:

“Posterity will judge us harshly if we decide to be quiet on allegations of injustice. Let’s follow this up until the Truth and Justice prevail. These allegations are too serious to be quiet. ACB must move with speed on the matter.”

Geneva-based governance analyst Onjezani Kenani said the issue had vindicated him on what he had all along observed that some lawyers, judges or court staff officials were corrupt.

“As I keep saying, some of our lawyers are corrupt, some of the court staff are corrupt, some magistrates are very corrupt, some judges at the High Court are very, very corrupt, and at least one judge at the Supreme Court is very, very, very corrupt. As a nation, we are screwed”, said Kenani.

However, a renowned Lilongwe based human rights lawyer Chrispine Sibande described the general condemnation of judges and lawyers on the matter by some sections of the public as uncalled for and very unfortunate.

“The general condemnation of judges and lawyers is uncalled for and unfortunate. This issue of generalization. Aren’t there issues about doctors, accountants, economics and engineers? Aren’t patients dying in some cases because of gross misconduct of doctors? Aren’t accountants involved in some of the serious cases of theft and corruption in public and private institutions – should we condemn all accountants?” queried Sibande.

Added Sibande:“Note that every profession has some issues, some bordering on corruption and bribery, some of the issues are indeed very serious. But the sentence and condemnation shouldn’t be the whole profession. Comments shouldn’t be about the whole profession. The way comments are being written about lawyers it is as if it is the whole profession. Let us not say ‘lawyers, judges, magistrates’. That is condemning the whole profession and it shouldn’t be like that.”.

While concurring with Sibande on the need to avoid generalizations, Makhumbo Munthali said the fact that there were “some ethical lawyers should not prevent the public from denouncing the ‘rotten ones’ who thrive on perpetrating injustices”.

Added Munthali:“It is misleading to conclude that some crooked teachers, accountants, doctors or engineers have been exempted from public condemnation. Our media has a plethora stories of such. However, even if there were no stories or posts publicly condemning engineers or accountants this wouldn’t justify that we keep quiet when we see injustices fueled by some members of the legal profession.”

Munthali, who also once worked as national advocacy coordinator for Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, said the general impression one would get after reading  Sibande’s comment is that the learned lawyer is more concerned with sprucing up the image of the legal profession “rather than fighting any vestiges of injustice perpetrated by some lawyers.”

Over the years, court processes in the country have been riddled with missing files or missing pages in case files, displacements of files, a development which is cited as one of the reasons for the delay in delivery of justice in the country.

However, renowned Blantyre-based lawyer John-Gift Mwakhwawa, who is former Malawi Law Society (MLS) president said these allegations made against the profession were serious and that it was important that the MLS and ACB to take action and investigate the allegations.

“Some of us have had suspicion, and we cannot just sweep these allegations away. We have the mandate to go deep and investigate. We should engage the Anti-Corruption Bureau to investigate these allegations. The moment people lose trust in the justice system, it is the beginning of anarchy. The matter needs to be investigated for the integrity of the profession and for public confidence” said Mwakwawa in an interview in the press.

While acknowledging receipt of the letter, MLS President Khumbo Soko said the letter was a matter between the Judiciary and the Malawi Law Society (MLS) hence declined to comment further.

“I cannot comment on the information that was leaked. This is an internal matter”, said Soko.

However, local governance commentators took it to social media to add their voice to John-Gift Mwakhwawa calls for ACB’s and MLS swift action on the matter.

Meanwhile, Registrar of the High Court of Malawi and Supreme Court of Appeal, Agness Patemba, said they are set to meet Feberuary 13 to 15 to find a way forward towards addressing the issues.