Liberia: A Judiciary in Crisis With Justice Imperiled

Justice, according to a number of local and international institutions is on sale to the highest bidder in Liberian courts and its resultant effects is the denial of access to justice to most Liberians, especially the nation's poor, particularly those who live in rural or remote areas.

Although crime statistics from rural areas of the country are low, such could be attributed mainly to long held cultural values which, amongst others, engender respect for the sanctity of human life, respect for elders as repositories of wisdom, etc. and are reinforced by the existence of traditional or non-statutory laws to which local communities largely adhere.

In rural areas, where there is an absence of law enforcement and judicial institutions, matters that arise bordering on criminal behavior are, depending on the severity of the case at hand, settled either by specially arranged village councils (Palava Hut) or are left to the Poro or Sande Zoes or to Bodios (spiritual priests) to resolve and their decisions are most often held binding.

In some cases, the administration of justice on the basis of traditional law often comes into conflict with provisions of Statutory law, particularly in instances involving trial by ordeal, otherwise referred to as 'Sassywood'. The illegality of 'Sassywood' (Trial by ordeal) in Liberia was banned by the Supreme Court in 1916 in a landmark opinion "Jedah Vs. Horace". It was also cited in the case POSUM VS PARDEE 4 L.L.R/299,304-305 (1935).

Thus, it may be argued that contextually, access to justice is not as constrained or restricted for most people in areas where the presence of law enforcement and judicial services are virtually non-existent for people whose daily lives are governed by traditional law.

But in rural-urban and urban settings, particularly in Monrovia, the nation's largest and only primate city, where statutory law holds sway, access to justice for particularly the poor and underprivileged, remains a constant nightmare.

This can be evidenced by the large number of pretrial detainees currently being held in urban and rural urban prisons around the country. Most detainees, due to their financial inability, are unable to meet the required fees to post a bond; thus, they languish for months awaiting trial from courts whose dockets are overloaded.

Additionally, in the courts of first instance (Magisterial courts), an aggrieved individual seeking redress through the law is first required to register the complaint. Registration fee is US$10 (ten United States dollars) and failure or inability to pay simply means that the individual cannot be heard.

It is as if party litigants are being taxed to support the purchase of court supplies including stationery. This measure provides a canopy under which judges, judicial officers and even unscrupulous lawyers can exact unreasonable demands from unsuspecting clients. This is corruption -- pure and simple -- and it has to stop.

Against this backdrop, news reports of Judges going unpaid for three (3) months is alarming and needs to be addressed forthwith. According to an August 9, 2018 Frontpage Africa report, Judges are concerned that such challenges may hamper the dispensation of justice -- that is, fair, transparent, cold and unadulterated justice.

The FrontPage Africa report, quoting a Judge who spoke under conditions of anonymity, following a closed-door with the Chief Justice, said, "This meeting was very disappointing for us; we have not taken pay for the last three months now, we have vehicles in our care to fuel and other expenses to cover now we can't engage in business; the Chief Justice is telling us to go and improvise to run the court, how?" said the source, who disclosed that all of them left the meeting frustrated.

"We're not allowed to engage in any form of commercial activities; we are not allowed to do another job while we are judges. We're not being paid, how would we survive? The Judiciary must be a place of honor and Judges must be treated with respect."

A review of the draft national budget reveals that the Judiciary is not captured in the draft budget. Instead, what is listed is the "Law Courts" and notably, the Courts, as such, do not constitute a branch of government. Instead, the Courts are subsumed in the Judiciary, which constitutes one of the three separate but coequal branches of government.

That said, budgetary allocation to the Judiciary, otherwise referred to as the "Law Courts", stands at US$17,943,029, slightly in excess by US$200,000 of the previous year's budget of US$17,705,498. This compares unfavorably to what is listed as Legislative and Executive organs, which are allocated an amount of US$65,479,316.

Since the amount is not disaggregated, one can assume, rightly or wrongly, that the Legislature and the Executive are equally apportioned in this aggregate figure. This would reflect a difference of at least US$15 million between what is allocated to the Judiciary and what goes to the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

In actual reality therefore, the Judiciary is diminished and consigned to playing second fiddle to the Executive and Legislative and this constitutes a violation of the Constitution as it violates the principles enshrined in the separation of powers spelt out in Article 3 of the Constitution of Liberia which reads thus:

Article 3: "Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the legislative, the Executive and Judiciary. Consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this Constitution; and no person holding office in one of the said branches shall serve on any autonomous public agency".

Quite clearly, Liberia's Judiciary is in crisis and Justice in Liberia is imperiled.

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