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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Liberia > Liberia: Resurrecting the Justice System

Liberia: Resurrecting the Justice System

Africa Report N°107 6 Apr 2006


Reform of the justice system needs to be a top priority for Liberia’s new government and donors alike.[1] After fourteen years of civil war, the system is in shambles. Impunity prevails, and in this atmosphere, the government cannot adequately address economic governance, transformation of the military and reconstruction of war-scarred physical infrastructure – all primary areas for reform and reconstitution in 2006. Courts that do not prosecute those who siphon resources from government coffers impede progress in all other areas. Within the next six months, stronger and impartial mechanisms are required in both the statutory and customary law systems, and community-based justice programs should be created.

Strong and ruthless leaders manipulated all institutions in pre-war Liberia to maintain and legitimise their power. The culture of corruption and impunity helped spark and nurture the conflict, and numerous challenges continue to paralyse the justice system. The statutory law system and the state-sponsored customary law system do not work in partnership, and executive oversight of customary law through the ministry of internal affairs has meant there is no judicial review of chiefs’ judgments or their abuses of power. Liberians remain uninformed of their rights and how to pursue them. Even before the conflict, the justice system suffered from an historical lack of independence from the executive and failed to operate as an impartial forum since access to it was dependent on economic or social capital.

In many parts of the country, courts have ceased functioning. Magistrates conduct hearings on their balconies or in private homes because of crumbling or demolished courthouses. Prisoners languish for months and years in pre-trial detention because the courts lack personnel, bookkeeping, and case management skills. Low salaries and deplorable working conditions for judges, magistrates and justices of the peace nurture widespread corruption. Magistrates’ courts often apply civil procedure in criminal cases because they lack relevant legal texts. Justices of the peace, many illiterate, operate renegade justice forums after being instructed to cease hearing cases. Judicial officers are helpless as ex-combatants on the lawless Guthrie Plantation brazenly insist no court has jurisdiction over them.

Important reforms needed within a half year include a nationwide court-rebuilding project, training programs for judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and customary law officials, and dissemination of legal texts. Government, civil society, and donors should also make creation, funding, and support of community-based justice programs in rural areas a primary focus of their efforts. The reform agenda should reflect that justice is as important in the countryside as in Monrovia. Community-based programs would empower individuals and communities who rarely interact with formal power structures and do more for less money by providing paralegal services, getting information and legal texts to customary officials, encouraging local dialogue around gender justice, soaking up the energy of unemployed youth and helping people navigate both statutory and customary systems.

The Liberian justice system is an amalgam of internal and imported statutory law; U.S. common law; state-sponsored African customary law, in which chiefs and local administrators exercise judicial powers; and African customary law that operates beyond state oversight, within Poro and Sande power associations, councils of elders, and other forms of dispute resolution. The two forms of customary justice have continued and even thrived despite the upheaval of war. Governments and donors pay scant attention to the interface between statutory and customary law but in Liberia customary law is the primary arena in which citizens look for justice. Reforming only the statutory system would mostly benefit urban elites, who are most likely to avail themselves of that system. A working relationship should be nurtured between the statutory and state-sponsored customary law systems, including by training customary officials and strengthening the appeals process of the customary system by facilitating appeals to the statutory courts.

Sustained reform of the justice system requires the legal and judicial fraternities to lead the effort. They must be central players in design and implementation. A decade of war pulverised what was already a dysfunctional system. It will take even longer to rebuild it and create one that provides justice and protection for businesses and potential investors, men and women, elders and youth, rich and poor alike.

This period is the most hopeful in recent Liberian memory. Justice reform can succeed if the government puts it prominently on the agenda, community-based approaches to justice are taken, and donors deliver money quickly and in sufficient quantities.


Short-term reforms (to be commenced within six months)

1.  Donors should:

a) fund a major project, to commence immediately, to rebuild and refurbish magistrates’ courts and circuit courts in all counties;

b) continue and strengthen efforts to disseminate legal texts, including copies of the constitution and the codes of civil and criminal law and procedure, to all magistrates’ and circuit courts;

c) provide magistrates’ courts and circuit courts immediately with necessary resources for record keeping and case management, including typewriters and stationery; and

d) support civil society organisations financially and technically in designing and implementing community-based justice programs.

2.  The higher-level judiciary, including the chief justice and other Supreme Court justices, should:

a) design, with financial and technical help from donors, legal training for justices of the peace, magistrates, circuit court judges and state-sponsored customary law officials in such areas as procedure and jurisdiction, application of legislation, case management, ethics and gender sensitivity; and

b) ensure that no children are held in detention in violation of the juvenile code.

3.  The government should require judges who have accepted circuit court positions to go immediately to and remain at their posts.

4.  Civil society organisations, with donor financial support and technical assistance, should:

a) design and implement community-based justice programs, especially in rural areas; and

b) disseminate knowledge of the rape bill throughout the country.

5.  UNMIL should address the problem of ex-combatants on Guthrie Plantation, who refuse to submit to the jurisdiction of statutory courts, contribute to the culture of impunity, and pose a serious threat to civilians, by resolving – with force if necessary – the illegal occupation of that plantation.

6.  The legislature should pass the Finance Autonomy Bill so that the judicial branch has adequate funding that the executive cannot arbitrarily reallocate.

Medium-term reforms (to be commenced within one year)

7.  The government should:

a) strengthen the relationship between statutory law and state-sponsored customary law by revising the ministry of internal affairs’ oversight of state-sponsored customary law by ensuring that only the judicial branch hears appeals from customary law officials on judicial, as opposed to executive, decisions;

b) establish a law reform commission to revise the archaic Rules and Regulations Governing the Hinterland of Liberia and review laws involving gender, commerce, labour and citizenship;

c) advance gender justice by reforming laws that restrict women’s rights and drafting progressive, gender-sensitive legislation including in the areas of domestic violence and reproductive rights;

d) start tackling corruption in the justice system by raising the salaries of judicial officers, within the broader context of civil service reform; and

e) organise consultative national conferences to establish a broad consensus on its reform agenda, possibly to include constitutional reform, and form a commission to address questions of constitutional reform, whose findings should accompany those of the national conferences.

Long-term reforms (to be commenced within the next two years)

8.  The higher-level judiciary, including the chief justice and other Supreme Court justices, in order to address corruption and accountability problems within the justices of the peace courts, should:

a) advocate inclusion of justices of the peace on the judicial payroll so as to attract qualified individuals;

b) uphold literacy and qualification standards for justices of the peace by conducting a serious vetting process before submitting applications to the executive for re-appointment; and

c) include justices of the peace in judicial training activities.

9.  The judiciary, including the chief justice, other Supreme Court justices, and circuit court judges where applicable, in order to ensure accountability within the statutory courts, should:

a) enforce the requirement that justices of the peace and magistrates submit quarterly activity reports and use them to conduct a strict review process by circuit courts, with performance benchmarks;

b) insist that circuit courts submit quarterly activity reports for review by the Supreme Court; and

c) issue a revised code of conduct for judicial officers and lawyers, with procedures for complaints and provision for sanctions, including a Judicial and Prosecutorial Council to receive complaints of misconduct from police, other judges and prosecutors, defence councils and ordinary citizens and to forward its findings to an independent body.

10.  The government should foster judicial independence and fight corruption in the justice system by creating a Judicial Service Commission to appoint judges, comprised of representatives – the majority not appointed by the president – from all levels of the judicial branch and from the ministries of justice and internal affairs, the Liberian National Bar Association and the Arthur Grimes School of Law, as well as non-lawyers.

11.  Civil society should play a watchdog role in the reform process by:

a) monitoring court performance and compiling statistics;

b) publicly evaluating judicial performance; and

c) reviewing the workings of disciplinary mechanisms for judges.

Dakar/Brussels, 6 April 2006

[1] In this report the term “justice system” is used to refer not only to the judiciary and the courts, including such lower officials as magistrates and justices of the peace and their courts, but also to the customary law system. “Justice reform” is likewise used in preference to “judicial reform” when referring not only to the statutory court system, but also to the customary law system.
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