On February 23, 2016, 19 women were arrested by police and jointly charged “for the offence of living on the earnings of prostitution” in violation of § 146 of the Penal Code of Malawi (the “Penal Code”) ( ¶ 1.1). A Fourth Grade Magistrate in Dedza convicted them “on their own plea of guilt” and fined them MK 7,000.00 each (¶ 1.2). The police lacked evidence to prove the charge against them. In addition, the women did not have legal representation during the proceedings, including when their guilty plea was recorded. The women challenged the conviction on July 28, 2016 on numerous grounds including (i) that the Fourth Grade Magistrate did not have jurisdiction, (ii) that the women were charged together when they should have been charged separately, (iii) that the High Court should not have accepted a unanimous plea, (iv) that “the charge was wrong in law as living on the earnings of prostitution does not target the sex worker herself” but those who live parasitically and exploitatively off her earnings, and (v) that the plea of guilty should not be accepted because the court did not comply with mandatory procedures regarding the defendants’ knowledge. The High Court found that the Fourth Grade Magistrate did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. In addition, the Court held that the arrest of the women was unconstitutional and not based on evidence. Citing the legislative history of the offense, the Court clarified that § 146 of the Penal Code did not criminalize sex work but was mainly intended to protect sex workers from those who would exploit them. The High Court held that even though sex workers may be arrested in circumstances under this section, the arrest must be properly supported by evidence. Consequently, the High Court vacated the convictions and ordered that fines be repaid to the women.
The Republic v. Banda, et al.