12 July 2012

Liberia: Cost of Court Blocks Access to Justice

"No, not me, I labored under the hard burning sun and heavy down pour of rain, I cannot just go like that" were the words of Madam Martha Tozah when she decided to withdraw a L$46,000 case from a Magisterial Court for a compromise.

Martha Tozah, a lady selling "sell-pay" plantain at the Paynesville Red light Gorbachop Market said, she joined a Nigerian susu for six years and purchased one lot from Mr. John Goodluck at Thinkers Village #1 near the ELWA community some five years ago. She said when she started working at the site this year, one Moses George; owner of the property stopped her, adding that Mr. Goodluck, a mere caretaker was not authorized to sell the land.

Based on this, she went to the Paynesville Magisterial Court from where a Writ of Summon was issued on Mr. Goodluck causing her to pay L$1,000 to process a court document and L$500 paid to the arresting Police officer (Constable) to bring the defendant in court. On the following day, she said, the Sheriff of the court told her that the arresting officer did not see the defendant, and hence obtained a new copy of the writ. The next time, a plain clothes officer has to effect the arrest at the total cost of L$500.

When Mr. Goodluck, the defendant was arraigned before the court, he pleaded that he did not have a legal counsel to represent him neither anyone to file his bond, and he was detained at the Monrovia Central Prison, South Beach.

Miss Tozah explained that when she appeared in the court after one week and inquired about her case the Sheriff of the

Paynesville Magisterial Court told her that someone stood for the defendant's bond; adding that the case was scheduled for Tuesday the following week at 2:00pm, but the defendant did not appear for hearing. The magistrate asked Miss Tozah to issue a notice of assignment and pay the office to deliver it, she added.

When both parties appeared on the scheduled date, the plaintiff said the case commenced, but did not get anywhere. The judge of the court was about to re-schedule the case, when the lawyer of the defendant requested for six weeks and it was accepted. "This breaks my heart and I decided never in my life to take issue to court anymore" said Miss Tozah.

She used the 6 weeks period granted to the defendant to plead with the proper owner of the property, Mr. Moses George to see her side of the matter and consider," the plaintiff said. "We came to an understanding but I was relocated in a swampy area after being asked to pay an additional US$200.00." Miss Tozah further complained that at present, her foundation stone-pegs of six blocks is now completely covered by water, which renders work on the spot impossible.

At the Paynesville Magisterial Court, an Associate Magistrate who refused to speak to our reporter said the court charges are on record but he was unwilling to allow the clerk of court to show the record. Also at the Civil Court, in the Temple of Justice, the senior clerk, Madame Ellen Hall who refused to give her record to our reporter said fees that are charged are not fixed. "She added that it is possible to talk with the court officers, as anything to speed up the process is accepted." At the same court, the Sheriff confirmed that fees are on the book for court process, but do not represent the current reality. Similar information was obtained at both the Monrovia City court and at the Paynesville Magisterial court.

In 1 LCLR section 63.1 a b c d speaks of defendants should be under bond, but amount was left with the description of the judge based on the gravity of the crime. Also 1 LCLR chapter 62 B Summary Preceding section 21 on the right to maintain summary preceding, a Justice of Peace or Magistrate shall have jurisdiction on cases, in which the amount should not exceed three hundred dollars. All of these, the Sheriff said do not reflect the current situation.

In a related issue, the former Associate magistrate at the Monrovia City Court, a law practitioner at the Paynesville Magisterial Court , a recent graduate of the Lewis Arthur Grime School of Law, University of Liberia (UL) Hon. Moses S. W. Sundah who attempted to secure a seat at the House of Legislature 2011 election said, " If I have succeeded in the House of Legislature I would have sponsored a bill to make the re-sale of land a non-bailable offence, adding that ninety percent of cases we are handling for clients are about the illegal re-sale of land by unprincipled people."

It is often said that laws are reasoning, and where reasoning fail law fail. The present population increase dictates that there will be more cases.

The fact that a senior clerk of Civil Court can tell a reporter that there is no fixed fee for the processing of documents indicates that illegal fees are being charged to render services in the court.

While it is true to alter legal documents, it requires time and cost, some of the laws controlling our court system are obsolete. To discourage mal-practices in the court system today means that there is a need to revisit those laws.

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