Charlotte outside the Mwanza office 

Law alumna's charity seeks justice in Malawi

Charlotte Mackenzie (Law, 2010) was called to the Bar in 2011 and is now a tenant at Staple Inn Chambers in London practicing in Family Law and Immigration (Asylum). She is also the Founder and Director of the Malawi Bail Project (MBP), a UK registered charity that funds and delivers access to justice initiatives and activities in Malawi.

Charlotte said: “Whilst in my final year at Exeter, I received an email from my Human Rights lecturer, Caroline Fournet, about a paralegal organisation in Malawi, the Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), who were looking for legal interns. The following year I found out about the Inner Temple’s Sir Joseph Priestly Award, which provides internship awards to newly qualified barristers, and I immediately applied proposing a four week placement with CHREAA.

“I was granted the scholarship and left for Malawi in January 2012 intending to stay for four weeks. However after seeing the devastating consequences of a justice system where 90% of prisoners do not have access to legal advice or representation, I decided to stay for a further three months to assist CHREAA with their vital work.”

Prisons throughout Malawi are severely overcrowded. At Chichiri Prison, one of the largest prisons in Malawi, cells built to hold 60 people currently hold over 200 prisoners. Overcrowding means the already limited prison budget cannot provide adequate nutrition, sanitation or health care for inmates, which contributes to the spread of infectious disease and in many cases death.

Charlotte said: “This crisis is, in part, due to the large numbers of people (currently around 6,000) imprisoned on remand and awaiting trial. During my internship with CHREAA I conducted research which found that that 75% of prisoners interviewed were not aware of the right to bail; primarly due to the severe lack of legal aid lawyers in Malawi (around 20 currently practicing).

“Strikingly, a large majority of the prisoners interviewed were either first time offenders, or were alleged to have committed non-violent crimes and would therefore seemingly be, good candidates for bail. Observing that this situation could have been avoided simply by ensuring that the accused person had access to information/advice about their right to bail upon arrest at the police station or at court, I founded the Malawi Bail Project (MBP).

“We have three core objectives: (i) legal empowerment through community education (ii) capacity building of professionals in the criminal justice system (iii) the promotion of rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. We deliver these aims in partnership with CHREAA through a range of activities.”

Some of the activities Charlotte has undertaken include distribution of ‘Understanding Your Right to Bail’ booklets/posters to magistrates’ courts and police stations, providing a toll-free 24/7 Paralegal Advice Line for detainees and family members of those arrested to receive practical advice, and delivering separate training and discussion groups with magistrates and police officers to explore ways of making the justice system more accessible for the poor and unrepresented.

Charlotte said: “We also work with Nkhokwe Arts Group (NAG), a group of ex-prisoners who use theatre to educate communities on socio-economic issues. They have devised a play about the legal process and the right to bail which they perform in community centres in and around Blantyre.

“In addition we coordinate Camp Courts - special Court sessions where judges are brought to the prison to consider bail applications from those charged with minor offences or where the accused is particularly vulnerable. We are hoping to expand our work and are keen to partner with other law firms and organisations to get information out.”

For more information on the Malawi Bail Project please visit their website.

Date: 30 October 2019

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