Since 1969, Malawi has operated under two parallel court systems. The first is based on the United Kingdom legal system with local courts and a local appeals court in each district. Formerly, these courts heard all cases of customary law and had wide statutory, criminal, and civil jurisdiction. The upper layers consist of the Supreme Court of Appeal, the High Court, and magistrates' courts. A chief justice and four puisne judges appointed by the president staff the High Court. There is a chain of appeals from the local courts up to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
A second system was established in November 1969, when the National Assembly empowered the president to authorize traditional African courts to try all types of criminal cases and to impose the death penalty; the president was also permitted to deny the right of appeal to the High Court against sentences passed by the traditional courts, a right formerly guaranteed by the constitution. Traditional court justices are all appointed by the president. Appeals from traditional courts go to the district traditional appeals courts and then to the National Traditional Appeal Court. Appeals from regional traditional courts, which are criminal courts of the first instance, go directly to the National Traditional Appeal Court.
In 1993, the attorney general suspended the operation of regional and national level traditional courts in response to a report by the National Consultative Council on problems in the workings of the traditional court system. Since then the trend is toward moving serious criminal and political cases from traditional to modern courts. Education and training seminars have led to some improvements in the functioning of the local traditional courts.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which is respected in practice. Defendants have the right to public trial, to have an attorney, to challenge evidence and witnesses, and to appeal. The constitution superseded many old repressive laws. The High Court may overturn old laws that conflict with the constitution.