Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Space for Interaction

It was still morning, just about nine and members of the Malawi Law Society, lawyers to be precise, had taken seats in Mount Soche Hotel’s Njamba Room on July 16, not necessarily to make money—although some would by presenting papers—but to dialogue on matters law.

They were united by their profession, and left aside things that divide them—religion, politics, special interests, clients.

Of course some lawyers were at the High Court, others at the Supreme Court while others were representing clients to magistrates. Which is why the hall was not full and judges, especially, were yet to take their seats. But the gathering was refreshing, a reminder that lawyers have cares beyond personal interests.

“There is much more to law than [the] pursuit of self interest,” said Edge Kanyongolo of the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College in his refreshing introductory remarks.

Do lawyers have time to reflect on society and focus on national and not personal interests? The perception, what some lawyers may call misconception, is that lawyers are after money, always, and that they don’t put national interests first which might be true or untrue in some sense.

One reason is that some laws don’t reflect Malawi’s economic status. An example is lack of effective public transport.

Malawi does not have a national bus company, one is yet to be formed. Even so, it will not service all routes, at least not Chididi, Nayuchi and most parts of the country. Yet matola is illegal, meaning, it is a crime for a person with a pick-up to help people where there are no buses.

This doesn’t paint a good picture of lawyers, although they are not necessarily law makers, a duty reserved for Parliament. But their picture grows worse when they represent people society knows as thugs and thieves. The argument being that even thugs deserve justice, which is true.
But there is a lot of lawyering outside courtrooms. The conference in Blantyre was just a small example; the journal that was launched was a big one.

“Law is being called upon to interact with other disciplines,” said Kanyongolo. He was right and the conference reflected the call because it was opened by a nurse, Dorothy Nyasulu, who until July 14 was chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission.

It was a soothing sight: a nurse opening a meeting of lawyers. It was also a sign that lawyers are willing to listen to other voices, which is what life is all about: listening, not only to oneself but to others. Not only that. The journal discusses issues that are for the benefit of all people.

Just a copy and one has access to justice, in a way, for almost free because it costs a lot less than a junior practitioner would charge per hour.

But the other advantage is that the journal will, according to its editor-in-chief, Danwood Chirwa, cure some of the gaps in existing law texts for the benefit of law students and practitioners.

“People must write about Malawian law more,” said Chirwa, who is an associate professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, at the conference.

This was collaborated by Malawi Law Society vice-president Kalekeni Kaphale who gave an impromptu speech. He was asked to speak at just about time and he had to compose something and spoke with ease. “I am used to addressing six [or so] people in the Supreme Court,” he said. “This gathering is different.”

Kaphale recalled his student days, about 20 years ago when academic staff in the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College referred to journals from the West: Harvard Law Journal, Oxford Law Journal, and so on; nothing from Malawi.

Such days are over. Of course, students will still read journals from outside. But they will also have the opportunity to read a law journal from Malawi. Academic staff have a space for publication, so they can rise professionally.

Lack of journals is cited as one reason academic staff don’t publish a lot. In fact, the meeting itself told the story, that academic staff outside Malawi rise faster than their colleagues in Malawi. Chirwa, the editor-in-chief, was at Chanco not long ago. He was taught by people who are now senior lecturers yet he is associate professor at Cape Town University.

Part of the reason is that outside Malawi, an academic culture of research and publishing is strong. Part of the reason is that Polytechnic, for example, has no established academic journal. The Malawi Law Journal, is therefore, a space of interaction where lawyers and people interested in law can dialogue; a space where law speak and listen to other voices.

Further, the journal is a space of interaction for issues of national importance. One article in the first edition (June 2007) confirms this claim. It is titled ‘Limits of criminal punishment in preventing HIV [and] Aids’ by Grace Malera.

The article examines whether or not criminal punishment can be used to prevent the spread of HIV. It also discusses the necessity (or lack of it) of a law to check the spread of HIV. Such articles are necessary now when some human rights activists argue for laws that would prevent the spread of HIV.

“A punishment approach may produce an environment of fear and lack of trust in the public health system, which in turn, would undermine preventive and treatment measures,” concludes Malera.

This is just one example. There are more articles of national importance in the November, 2007, and June, 2008, editions.

Issues about environment and bank conduct, for example, are discussed and these are not for the personal interest of the authors but the country—all of us—and this is evidence that lawyers are not simply in pursuit of personal interests but also the national good.

Yet law students and others will find the journals useful, meaning the journal is one step on the ladder to improving education standards in the country. This is so despite wild claims that education is going down in this country, partly because graduates cannot speak good English as if spoken English is a universal tool of testing education standards.

The journal will also improve on the performance of the Judiciary because judgements will be evaluated constructively, of course.

Which is why Kaphale said the journal is serving as a tool for legal development and that the journal is a forum for evaluating established legal trends, an engine for change and an interaction forum. He, therefore, called on lawyers to write for the journal.

“If we can’t write, let us buy the journal and support it,” said Kaphale.

The journal was launched by the Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo on July 17. It was a show that the Judiciary has welcomed the publication. The Attorney-General, Jane Ansah, graced the opening of the conference and she relived her graduate days when there was no journal from Malawi as a reference for students outside Africa. She has a doctorate in law and one would have expected that she stopped reading.

But as PhDs like to say, getting a doctorate is the beginning of learning because a PhD means one is able to study on their own and form independent opinion.

“There is no end to learning,” concurred Kanyongolo, a respected LLD himself.

These are gracious words from a gracious mind who rightfully noted that lawyers are doing a lot more than pursuit of self interest. The meeting in Blantyre and the launch of the Malawi Law Journal were two testimonies that law is more than money.

Law is for people, even the poor.

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