Funding cuts to the Legal Aid Bureau in the K2.2 trillion 2020/21 National Budget threaten to frustrate clearance of a backlog of 16 000 court cases mostly affecting vulnerable people in the country.
Briefing the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament in Lilongwe yesterday on operations of the bureau which provides free legal services to the masses, Legal Aid Bureau director Masauko Edwin Chamkakala said government was hesitant to fully support the bureau with resources despite its important role in helping Malawians access justice.
He said the bureau requested K2.2 billion for other recurrent transactions (ORT) in the 2020/21 financial year, but was allocated K689million, creating a K1.6 billion deficit. In the 2019/20 budget, the bureau requested K801million, but received K640million.
On the other hand, the bureau saw an increase in personal emoluments from K544.1 million to K688. 2 million.
Chamkakala said it was high time government started to value the role of the bureau and empower it in the manner of other institutions. He said justice is a crucial service and that if one is not properly represented it affects their quest to fight for justice.
He said: “It is a big challenge to us as managers because we still have to provide service. We still have to find other means of resourcing for the operations because there is still that hesitation on the part of Capital Hill to fully finance the bureau.
“If there is a reason for resources not being adequate, it should apply across the board. But if you look in the national budget, you will see some other institutions getting adequate resources. In our case we have been singing this song [of lack of funding] for almost five years now.”
Chamkakala said the bureau plans to have offices in all the country’s 28 districts by 2023.
Besides funding cuts, the bureau also faces human resource shortage, mobility challenges and lack of infrastructure for office space.
Chamkakala said the bureau currently has 24 lawyers, but its establishment requires 50 lawyers to be deployed nationwide.
He said efforts to have offices in all districts to take services closer to the people were being frustrated by some district commissioners who are reluctant to provide office space.
Chamkakala asked the Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament to intervene.
On his part, Legal Affairs Committee of Parliament chairperson Yusuf Nthenda said the committee will engage Treasury to look into the resources problem facing the bureau.
He said the situation at Legal Aid Bureau was worrisome and there was need to support the institution with resources.
Nthenda, a lawyer and Mulanje West legislator, said the bureau helps in representing vulnerable; hence, without resources it is difficult to carry out its duties.
“It is very crucial that we help the Legal Aid Bureau so that they carry out their mandate of legally representing the vulnerable people in our respective constituencies whenever they are faced with legal problems,” he said.
Committee member Jappie Mhango, legislator for Rumphi North, said the bureau was an important institution and needed to be empowered to help vulnerable people access legal services.
The Legal Aid Bureau was established to help provide legal services to people who cannot afford services from private lawyers. However, resource-constraints have frustrated the institution’s efforts to support those in need of the services.