Since the 9 January 2012 administrative staff from the Ministry of Justice have been on strike in Malawi. At issue is a government promise almost five years ago to grant them a 50 % salary increase which has never been fulfilled. They are also demanding that members of the judicial system be treated in the same manner as other civil servants in that their salaries should be reviewed every year and not every third year and that they must be paid their arrear wages before they return to work. They have vowed to continue to strike until their demands are met arguing that in 2008 they embarked on a similar strike but cancelled that strike after three days when government officials promised to review their grievances.
It seems that this protracted strike will not end soon. Many civil society organisations had hoped that Parliament would have dealt with the issue quickly and effectively when the current parliamentary session began on the 3 February 2012. Parliament has thus far failed to address the issue effectively. While the political crisis in Malawi and the withdrawal of much of its international donor support has left the government with a serious shortage of funds to meet its budget, Parliament’s decision to priortise the payment of a mid-term gratuity for MP’s has left members of the judicial system angry and strengthened their resolve to continue with the strike. Most lawyers we asked said that government did not have the money to meet the demands of the striking employees and it was very likely that this strike would continue beyond April this year.
The strike has had a serious impact on the whole judicial system with civil, commercial and criminal matters grinding to a halt. SALC is most concerned about the impact on the criminal justice system and specifically on pretrial detainees. We have witnessed that persons accused of crimes have not been granted bail and have been placed in indefinite remand. Where provisions are made for police bail these provisions have only been used sparsely and the majority of accused persons are now in prisons. This is not unusual in Malawi but the lack of an operational judicial system has led to increased police impunity and exacerbated the situation.
Malawi has a high number of remandees who have been awaiting trial for many years and have not been afforded fair trial rights. The new remandees will in all probability be incarcerated for many years before being brought to trial and may not even get the opportunity to be charged in front of a magistrate.
Conditions in the prisons are also dire; there is severe overcrowding, a lack of food and remandees are held with convicted prisoners.
The lack of capacity in the legal aid system will also affect these remandees. Even if the strike ends the backlog of cases will in all possibility be too much for legal aid to deal with and many of these remandees will remain lost in the system for a very long time.