Hon Folks, a chill ran down the spine to read Judge Esmie Chombo’s epistle to the Malawi Law Society (MLS), highlighting how corrupt lawyers tamper with records at the High Court registry.
In a rather diplomatic way, the judge sounded like she was simply building a case for consultations between judges and lawyers “as a means of nipping these obnoxious practices before they took deep roots” among the “learned brethren [of] the legal fraternity”.
Well, you never can tell whether the tap root of corruption within the legal fraternity has penetrated deep into the soil, can you?
I have issues with the reaction of Mr. Khumbo Soko, MLS chairperson, on the matter. He could not comment on the allegations in the media, only saying it was an internal matter between the Judiciary and MLS members, really?
My take is that either the matter was too embarrassing to discuss in public or Soko didn’t see the reason why malfeasance within the legal fraternity could be of public, let alone media, concern.
MLS does provide useful insights on many issues of public concern but it has a tendency to be defensive, if not outright secretive, on issues reflecting mischief among its members. For example, like a secret society, it prefers to act behind the curtains on allegations of lawyers swindling their clients.
The problem with such an approach is that it portrays MLS itself as a body which is ready and eager to shield the bad guys within the fraternity when they break, instead of upholding the law.
Judge Chombo’s concerns which, according to Soko, are an internal matter between judges and lawyers are disturbing if only because they clearly deprive law abiding citizens justice. The judge alleges that some lawyers have gone to the extent of bribing court staff with money to do the following:
lRemove documents of counsel representing the other party
lInsert documents in files when the same was not done at the right time
lMisplace or destroy court files so as to frustrate the proceedings
lOpen 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
In all these cases, the greater injury is not to lawyers representing either party to the case. By the end of the day, they both get their pay cheques regardless of whether the case has been won or lost.
I suspect the corrupt lawyers go to the extent of tampering with documents to satiate their egos. All over the world there are mafia-like lawyers who see value in bragging about not losing cases. That can only be music to the ears of criminals with deeper pockets who want to elude justice so they can continue breaking the law with impunity.
I bet there could be a strong correlation between corruption within the legal fraternity and the entrenched perception that the poor, not the rich, easily get trapped in the mesh of Malawi’s criminal law. Indeed high level corruption has a way of fighting back ruthlessly against measures to punish it.
It goes without saying therefore, that MLS has a moral duty to be louder in condemning the corrupt among its members and more open on what it is doing to root out corruption within its ranks. Lawyers owe this openness to the general public who are victimised when the corrupt among them win cases by tampering with court documents.
Which is why, Judge Chombo should be commended for copying her letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). That is a sure way to ensure those who prosecute crime—DPP or Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB)—can’t feign ignorance should they choose to bury their heads in the sand.