16 October 2013

Liberia: From Grass to Grace

Monrovia — Like supreme courts in most postwar, path-seeking nations, the Supreme Court of Liberia has been at the center of citizens' suspicion mainly for being unable to make the delivery of justice the centerpiece of the nation's reconciliation agenda. The trust deficit has been palpable, and to some extent, still. This prompted President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to describe the courts as weak link in the nation's drive for rule of law and the delivery of justice. Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, having acknowledged the criticism of the Temple of Justice during his investiture address this year, has not been taking the thrashing lying down. As he reports to the Judiciary this week, the Liberian justice system is moving, steadily and surely, from grass to grace. The Analyst, reports.

The Temple of Justice in Monrovia has taken a number of relevant reformist measures that Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr. has no doubt will narrow the so-called trust deficit, restore and solidify trust and confidence in the courts of Liberia, ease the difficulties of adjudication, and make the delivery of justice sure-footed.

He said the measures were in fulfillment of the pledge he made in his opening address during the October 2012 Term of the Supreme Court.

The measures include the restructuring and strengthening of the office of the Court Administrator, the creation of a public information office, the appointment of

Counselors of the Supreme [Court] Bar as judges of courts of record, the construction of court buildings, and the conduct of retirement program for judges and judicial workers.

Other measures are the replacement of retirees with specially qualified people, the policy to employ only high-school graduates who had passed the scrutiny of the Civil Service Agency, and the amendment of the Judiciary Law and the Criminal Procedure Law leading to increase in the jurisdiction of magisterial courts.

Still others are the appointment of a veteran lawyer to head the Grievance and Ethics Committee, participation in several international forums by judicial personnel from various levels of the court system of Liberia aimed at building the capacity of the Judiciary, and the streamlining of court dockets.

The chief justice revealed these achievements of the Temple of Justice in an address he delivered on Monday, October 14, 2013 on an occasion marking the formal opening of the October, 2013 Term of the Supreme Court.

Details of the reform measures

Chief Justice Korkpor said in all, the Temple of Justice took more than 11 reformist and adjustment measures in effort to uphold ease of the delivery of justice and narrow the so-called trust deficit that had drowned the efforts of previous Supreme Court administrations.

Restructuring and Strengthening

He said his administration undertook to restructure and strengthen the office of the Court Administrator to ease the burden of administration for the Office of the Chief Justice, which include the duties of a sitting judge and the duties of administration.

“This allows time for the Chief Justice, the principle administrator of the Judiciary who is also a sitting judge, to pay more attention to his primary function of adjudication,” Chief Justice Korkpor said, quoting US Chief Justice Warren Burger as noting that a chief justice juggling adjudication and management is likely to be inefficient.

Besides appointing Counselor Elizabeth Nelson as Court Administrator of the Supreme Court of Liberia, the chief justice said the court has also appointed former acting court administrator Ernestine Morgan Awar as assistant court administrator to be assisted by Attorney Sandra Howard as project officer.

“In line with, and in addition to the duties and functions outlined under the Rule of Court, the Court Administrator is responsible for a) human resource and fiscal administration, b) case flow and technology management, c) jury management, intergovernmental liaison, and e) public information, etc.,” he disclosed.

Without bias against Judicial Canon #11 that forbids judges from conducting newspaper column or comment on current news matter of general interest, the chief justice said, the Temple of Justice under his watch has concluded measure to create a Public Information Office in coming months.

The chief justice said the establishment of the office was crucial to the anchoring of the rule of law and to the building of trust.

He notes, “We are aware that justices and judges are public officials; and public officials are under a duty to give account of their stewardship of the work they do in the interest of the public. We are also aware that improved citizen and stakeholder communication helps to make the courts more appreciative of the needs to address public concerns.

“We must therefore strike a balance by creating a medium through which the public is informed on the inner workings of the courts and the gradual progress we are making in reforming the Judiciary. This should curtail the situation of speculation and at times unfounded and/or distorted reports by the media and others about the Judiciary.

“In this regard, and without any intent to compromise or offend the provision of Judicial Canon #11, we have mandated the Court Administrator to pursue a robust program of providing information to the public regarding the work of the Judiciary.

“This will require the creation of a public information office that will work closely with the Court Administrator to serve as a clearinghouse for the release of information on the Judiciary to the public on a periodic basis. And this will be done in consultation with the office of the Chief Justice to ensure that due care is exercised at all times in order to preserve the sanctity of matters and proceedings before the courts.”

Justice Korkpor noted further that his administration has made headways in other areas of administration in line with efforts to strengthen judicial administration and streamline the behavior of judicial workers.

“We have appointed Counsellor George E. Henries, a veteran lawyer and former Associate Justice of this Court as Chairman of the Grievance and Ethics Committee. He replaces Counsellor Pearl Brown Bull who tendered in her resignation. We thank Counsellor Bull for the services she rendered. Meanwhile, Counsellor Henries has accepted his appointment and assured that he will do his best to carry out his duties, and in doing so, bring credit to the Judiciary,” he said.

Building of adjudication competence

During the period in review, he said, his administration, with the cooperation of the president of Liberia, commissioned four counselors of the Supreme Court Bar to serve as judges of courts of record, positions observers say were held by court apprentices, some of whom were barely high school graduates.

Those commissioned to establish an aura of competence and efficiency within the judiciary, he implied, were Tiklo Konton, resident circuit judge, Third Judicial Circuit, Sinoe County; Nancy Sammy, resident circuit judge, 10th Judicial Circuit, Lofa County; Frank Smith, resident circuit judge, 15th Judicial Circuit, River Gee County; Johanese Zlahn, relieving judge; and Mozart Chesson, tax court judge, Montserrado County.

In the same moments that his administration was tapping some of the most experienced and efficient brains in the judiciary to administer local courts, the chief justice said, it was also engaged with upgrading competence and efficiency through retirement and replacement.

“On August 16, 2013, we conducted ... retirement programs in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, for Stipendiary Magistrates and Associate Magistrates from Lofa, Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties who had reached retirement age[of 70],” he said, noting that it collaborated with the Ministry of Finance, the Civil Service Agency, and the National Social Security & Welfare Corporation in the efforts.

He continued, “The exercises provide us the unique opportunity to replace those retired with specially qualified people. In the case of Stipendiary Magistrates, they are replaced from a pool of graduates from the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law who studied on judicial scholarships with the express understanding that they will serve the Judiciary for not less than three years upon graduation.

“Associate Magistrates are replaced with either law school graduates or college graduates who have gone through the professional magistrate training program at the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute. With respect to court clerks, bailiffs and others, our policy now is to only employ people who have attained at least high school education and have sat and passed appropriate tests administered by the Civil Service Agency.”

Infrastructural expansion

But that was not how far the administration was prepared to go in the in-house judicial reform and capacity building process.

Just as the Temple of Justice was working to establish competence and confidence, he said, it was also busy constructing court buildings in areas of desperate need. For instance, Justice Korkpor said, the government funded the construction of a court complex in Gbarpolu County, which he described as “the best court complex in Liberia outside Monrovia”.

The complex, he said, houses the 16th Judicial Circuit, the Debt Court, the Tax Court, the Probate Court, the Revenue Court, the Traffic Court and the Magistrate Court.

“The presence of these many courts in one central location means easy access by party litigants to the courts of their choice. It also means easy coordination amongst justice and judicial actors for the speedy disposition of court cases. This is a significant input of the Government in the reform process of the Judiciary. We thank the President for her support, and we also thank former Chief Justice Johnnie N. Lewis during whose administration the project was initiated,” the chief justice said.

Besides the Bopolu court complex, he said, his administration dedicated on August 17, 2013, a magisterial court building UNMIL constructed through its Quick Impact Program and presented to the Liberian government.

“Again, as always, we express appreciation to UNMIL for its continuous assistance to the Judiciary,” Chief Justice Korkpor said.

Reform Undergirding Amendments The chief justice said convinced that the changes introduced would be incomplete without legal backing, the administration took steps also to accommodate amendments to the act ‘to Amend Chapter 17 of the Liberian Code of Laws Revised, Judiciary Law, Chapter 4 Relating to the Jurisdiction of the Debt Court, Chapter 7 Relating to the Magistrate Courts and Related Matters'. It also took steps to accommodate the act ‘to Amend Title 1 of the Liberian Code of Laws Revised, Criminal Procedure, Chapter 22 Relating to Juries and Jurors'.

While necessary for the judicial reform process, he said, the amendments of these statutes came with new headaches to which judicial workers must acclimatize, if they must respond adequately to the call of patriotic and professional duty in postwar Liberia.

“The jurisdiction of the magistrate courts has been increased; magistrates can now exercise trial jurisdiction over all first, second and third degree misdemeanor cases instead of only infractions and petite larceny as was before; and an appeal from the magistrate courts to the circuit courts will be heard on appellate review based on the trial records of the magistrate court,” he revealed.

Instead of 12 jurors, he said, “circuit courts will now conduct jury trials with 6; jury matters will now be administered by a jury management office around the country in keeping with the new jury law.

And a competent jury list will now be sourced from a more credible database”.

In realization of this, he said, the administration has mandated the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute organize training workshops for judges, lawyers and other relevant judicial personnel.

However, he said, the successful implementation of the amendments does not lie only with the courts but also with the Executive Mansion.

“These new amendments require a substantial capital outlay which was not budgeted for,” he revealed.

International Conferences, contacts for empowerment

In addition to the new administration and legal measures it took to strengthen the delivery of justice and entrench the rule of law, the chief justice said, his administration designated competent judicial workers, from all levels of the judiciary, to participate in several capacity-building and enlightening international forums.

“We received a letter of invitation from the Center for International Peace Operations to attend a stakeholder workshop entitled: “Fit for the Future - Measuring Impact and Enhancing the Effectiveness of UN Rule of Law Assistance in Conflict and Post Conflict Environments”. The conference was held in Berlin, Germany from May 14--16, 2013. Mr.

Justice Philip A. Z. Banks, III represented us at the conference and presented a paper on the assessment of the United Nations' rule of law programs in Liberia,” he said.

Also, he said, between June 10--14, 2013, Justice Jamesetta Howard Wolokolie led a Liberian judicial delegation to Turkey on the invitation of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to participate in a study tour along with the judges of the Commercial Court and officials of the Law Reform Commission.

“From the report received, the Republic of Turkey has one of the best commercial court programs in the world. The study tour was therefore highly beneficial and rewarding for our commercial court, which is relatively new,” he said.

The administration, moreover, recently dispatched five trial court judges to Ghana to attend a conference on money laundering and terrorist financing. The trial court delegation included judges James E. Jones; Yussif D. Kaba; Peter W. Gbenewele; Baima Kontoe, and Mardea Chenoweth.

Justice Korkpor said he would shortly head a high-powered judicial delegation to Cote d'Ivoire to attend the conference of the Association of West African Chief Justices and Judges. He did not say what the delegation hopes to achieve from the conference, but he noted that the building of human resource capacity within the judiciary was an important aspect of the institutional reform program of his administration.

“A system is as good as those who run it. And we believe that the Judiciary can pass the test of delivering quality justice only if it has qualified people within its service. We will therefore avail ourselves of every opportunity to build the capacity of the Judiciary. In this regard, and since our incumbency we have made contacts with a number of programs and institutions to establish partnership in building the capacity of the Judiciary,” he said.

Among these institutions is the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), the management with which he said his administration is in contact to help prepare the Judiciary for the challenges that are likely to face the nation when it begins the exportation of oil in commercial quantity.

“As a result of those discussions, a project paper has been developed by our Project Section which is currently being reviewed and streamlined by the members of this Court,” he said.

On the international scene moreover, he said, his administration has begun reestablishing contacts with institutions with which the Judiciary heretofore had relationships.

“While visiting the United States of America about a month ago, Justice Banks, Justice Ja'neh and I visited the Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut. Based on the discussions had, we are hoping that the scholarship program with the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law will be restored and the training programs at the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute enhanced,” he said.

Press freedom, judicial prerogative, and court dockets.

The Liberian chief justice said while the Judiciary recognizes the rights of Liberians and residents to exercise the rights to free speech and free press and will do everything to protect it through court verdicts, it was incumbent upon those championing these rights to act within the confines of the laws.

He placed the freedom of speech and press on par with the right of court appeal and noted that however sacred to the delivery of justice these rights were, they were not without limitations.

Not only that, he said, it was important to recognize that the limitations on these rights were not the making of the Supreme Court such critics would use them as basis for suspicion and criticism of judges.

“It did not evolve by stare decisis. It is a clear mandatory provision of our statute, which every party wishing to be heard by this Court must follow,” he said regarding the appeal process.

The mandatory provision of the appeal statute, he said, provides, “'Failure to comply with any of the requirements [laid down and] within the time allowed by statute shall be ground for dismissal of the appeal'. Thus, where a party abandons the appeal process, the Supreme Court is without jurisdiction to hear the appeal on its merit; the appeal will be dismissed and the judgment of the lower court appealed from will be ordered enforced.”

The chief justice did not say what prompted the clarification, but observers say it is in apparent reference to the recent case involving the FrontPageAfrica and its editor.

He noted further, “This has always been the position of the Supreme Court under the direction of statute passed by the Legislature under mandate of the Constitution. Until the appeal statute is amended or repealed, this Bench will not take a position otherwise.”

Regarding the crowding of court dockets, which in the case of the Supreme Court reflects 188 cases on the trial docket and 52 cases on the motion calendar for this term, he said his administration has come up with a decision that would provide relief while increasing access to interested party litigants.

He noted, “Some of the cases date as far back as 2000. This Court, sua sponte, has continued to assign these old cases from time to time for hearing without success because many of them have become moot; the litigants have travelled, died, or settled out of court without filing the appropriate instruments to remove their cases from the Court.

“And since this Court is without authority on its own, to strike or order stricken any case regularly placed on its docket, the cases are carried over from year to year. No matter how many cases are heard and decided in a given term time, the docket seems to be going nowhere.

“To address this perennial problem, we have decided that all cases pending on the docket of this Court for more than five years will henceforth be placed in an inactive docket known as the dormant docket.

At all times priority will be given to the active docket over and above the dormant docket. A case in the dormant docket will only be assigned when there are sufficient indications that it will be heard when called.”

The reform, he said, would enable judges to “pay more attention to current cases in which litigants have real interest.”

“All Law Clerks are to work along with the Clerk of the Supreme Court to identify the cases to be placed on the dormant docket,” the Chief Justice said.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Korkpor said the Temple of Justice has lost to death 17 judicial workers that include judges, magistrates, bailiffs, court clerks, caretakers, and chauffeurs, between April 1 and October 1, 2013. The death, he said, occurred in Sinoe, Montserrado, Rivercess, Lofa, and Grand Kru counties.

“We extend profound sympathy to the families of these dedicated and committed Liberians who served their country so well and pray that God will pardon them of their inequities and grant eternal rest to their souls,” he said.

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