Lawyers from Bulawayo province in Zimbabwe participated to an eye-opening roundtable discussion organized by IBJ at the Law Society of Zimbabwe Summer Law School on November 13th 2010. This follow-up event happened six months after IBJ conducted a legal defense workshop where more than 20 lawyers from Bulawayo were equipped with trial advocacy skills. The objective was to discuss the congestion of Zimbabwe’s prisons, particularly in remand prisons in the targeted province, and the role that lawyers can play in reducing this. 15 lawyers, all trained by IBJ, were able to benefit from the interesting and important discussions that were introduced by IBJ Fellow and Country manager Innocent Maja and Senior Legal Fellow John Burombo.
Reflecting back on the discussions that took place throughout, IBJ and the participants all found that the objectives were met. The participants identified challenges in the justice and penitentiary system that cause congestion and overcrowding in remand prisons. Among these challenges were the poor functioning of the criminal justice system, the inability of ordinary citizens to pay legal fees, the slow process of criminal procedures and lack of coordination among the different actors of the system. The discussion continued by looking for practical solutions to the problem and ways in which lawyers can alleviate overcrowding in the remand prisons, with particular attention being paid to the lawyers collaborating with IBJ in a future legal aid pilot to be possibly launched in Bulawayo province. Lawyers committed to assist in providing legal assistance. This is a great step towards giving a sense of responsibility to lawyers from that province.
Participants found the discussion useful for their daily jobs and relevant to the challenges that Zimbabwe’s criminal justice system faces. A participant acknowledged that this was “only the beginning” and encouraged IBJ to “set up proper structures” for the engagement of lawyers in legal aid activities across the province.
In the same light, another participant stressed the importance of IBJ to engage senior partners in law firms in mentoring junior lawyers to assist indigent arrestees. He stressed the need to “make senior lawyers understand that the project will also go a long way in developing junior lawyers’ skills”. Another suggested the need to engage prosecutors and magistrates to help resolve the problem of overcrowding. IBJ is committed to creating a collaborative platform for discussion with the different segments of the justice sector of Bulawayo province.
Participants welcomed the provincial pilot legal aid project and asserted their commitment to assist indigent arrestees. They all expressed a strong desire to follow up, attend future roundtable discussions and training events, and contribute to legal assistance efforts so that one day, every man, woman and child accused of a crime in Bulawayo has effective access to quality legal counsel.