28 January 2013

Liberia: Ensuring Equitable Justice for All

The fate of several people detained on various offenses at the Monrovia Central Prison for over a year without trial remains in limbo as they continue to cry for a justice that continues to elude them deliberately or inadvertently. Expressing their frustration with their country's justice system during a brief interview with our reporter, (Re "Inmates Cry for Justice" New Democrat Jan. 25, 2013), the detainees said they have been held on charges ranging from murder and rape to armed robbery and property theft but have not been tried and convicted of any of those claims. One of them, claiming to have been wrongly accused of rape since January 18, 2012, said 'I'm only living in prison by God's mercy because the way out for me is unclear." The prison inmates invoked the relevant provision of the criminal procedure law that provides that anyone accused of an indictable offense must be indicted and tried within two terms of court.

These terms of court have since elapsed since the arrest of the accused who continue to languish in jail in violation of their basic fundamental rights.

Once again we view this as yet another disturbing phenomena purporting to create the impression that seeking equitable justice for all in Liberia is a waste of time, because that justice may not come during your lifetime. As we have said before, the situation has lent credence to the prevailing feeling of circumspection amongst Liberians and has become even more germane if juxtaposed with the popular saying that justice delayed is justice denied.

Already, a high ranking prosecutor recently alluded to overcrowding of prisoners at the Monrovia Central Prison. As authoritative as this revelation is, it becomes pertinent, in a nutshell, to look into the issues militating against an effective and efficient Judiciary in Liberia, and of course, what must be done to alleviate the problem of prison and courtroom congestion which in itself, is antithetical to the survival of democracy.

In trying to identify the fault lines of the problem of snail-speed justice delivery, we find it impossible not to call the attitude of litigants, lawyers and judicial officers alike, to question. We know for facts that some litigants play pranks with their lawyers by not duly perfecting their briefs. This may take the form of neglect to furnish, as at when due, requisite facts for prosecution of cases filed in court, or failure to fulfill some other pecuniary obligation, without which the lawyer might not be able to continue with the case. Conversely, it is also clear that some lawyers dishonestly devise tricks for cases to linger in court, through, for instance, their resort to seeking unnecessary adjournments at every turn in court proceedings or failure to attend court for flimsy or unfounded reasons.

Again it must be understood that these unethical practices have been solely attributed to tardiness resulting from laziness, knowledge gap and/or the quest for lucre. Our judicial officers are no less entangled in this orgy of laziness and failure to update their knowledge of the law through periodic training and retraining, as our investigations have revealed that a plethora of bad judgments and rulings churned out in lower courts contribute to the catalogue of pending cases in courts having appellate jurisdiction over such lower courts.

Added to this is the fact that our courts are not only ill-equipped but also lack basic necessities. It is also clear that the problem of congested courtrooms is exacerbated by the unwholesome activities of the police and other security agencies involved in the criminal justice administration system. It's all because our security agencies usually rush to the courts with suspects, before looking for evidence to prosecute them, a major contributor to the high number of cases pending in our courts. The backlash from such failure of proper investigation by our security agencies is the resultant prison congestion and the hike in the number of cases pending in courts. An extreme consequence of these glaring lapses may lie in the loss of confidence in our domestic justice administration system which rubbishes our often brandished favorable investment climate and translates to a huge disincentive to potential foreign investors in Liberia.

Security forces and the Judiciary need to make efforts aimed at resuscitating and revitalizing our over-burdened justice administration system by adopting relative new laws to engender simplicity, fluidity and speed in prisons and in court proceedings. Of course, the step can be taken with legislative inputs that will help to eliminate indolence and tardiness on the part of lawyers and litigants alike.

Relevant agencies of government tasked with dispensing equitable justice should also collectively move towards a paradigm shift from the present practice of unplanned arrests, arraignment of suspected criminals to a new era of proper intelligence gathering which will envisage such arrests only when evidence to arraign and diligently prosecute are readily available. We believe that this will largely help to expedite our justice delivery system and prevent litigants from militating against government's efforts to ensure equitable justice for all.

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