Last month ILAC officially returned to Liberia in order to conduct a new assessment on access to justice in Liberia. The new report will examine the role of a spectrum of actors that contribute to resolving disputes in Liberia. This includes the judges, prosecutors and lawyers that comprise the formal justice system, as well as traditional and customary authorities that resolve many disputes in rural parts of the country.
ILAC has engaged with justice actors in many conflict-affected countries since its founding in 2002, but some of its most important early work was in Liberia. ILAC conducted its second-ever justice system assessment in Liberia in 2003 and followed up immediately with a programme supporting justice reforms that ran through 2010. According to an independent evaluation, the Liberia programme was “exceptionally well adapted to the situation in the country and the needs within the judiciary”. However, the evaluation also pointed out that the programme focused on formal justice and failed to engage with traditional justice actors.
Formal justice institutions are better understood by donor countries and have received greater support from international actors such as ILAC. However, in many conflict-affected countries like Liberia, formal courts remain dependent on customary justice to act as a de facto lowest instance. The assessment team observed that traditional adjudicators effectively keep the peace in many rural areas, absorbing a daily caseload of minor grievances and disputes that taken together would swamp the formal courts.
The prevalence of customary justice in Liberia, as in many other countries, is rooted in local preferences for justice seen as accessible and reflective of community values and norms. Crucially, however, the ability of customary leaders to continue playing this role in Liberia depends on their being able to rely on the formal justice system to effectively deal with crimes, and particularly serious crimes of violence, that they have neither the capacity nor a legal mandate to address.
The ILAC team observed that the formal justice system is currently perceived as not holding up its end of this bargain. Both judges and police lack resources and capacity, and reportedly assess “fees” for undertaking the most routine duties in relation to justice seekers. Rural magistrates were described as particularly inaccessible and prone to charging unlawful fees for routine actions. These “supply side” problems in the formal justice system are exacerbated by the lack of sufficient legal aid available to parties to cases outside of Liberia’s urban areas.
All of this is highly significant in light of the finding that sixteen years after the end of the conflict in Liberia – and one year after the departure of the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) – access to justice remains crucial to prevention of local conflicts that have the potential to reopen wider regional, tribal or sectarian rifts.
Crucial work remains to be done in this area. In line with the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States and Sustainable Development Goal 16.3, which place access to justice at the heart of sustainable development, support to access to justice in Liberia should be strategic, long-term, and closely tied to broader development targets, and particularly those set out in the country’s 2018-2023 Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD).
During the mission, the ILAC team met with key Ministries, judges, national representatives of customary authorities, civil society organisations, the private bar and the law faculty in the capital, Monrovia before engaging in discussions with customary communities, local peacebuilding commissions, judicial and police officials and NGOs in Bong, Lofa and Nimba Counties. The delegation included the following ILAC staff and experts:
- Anna Gilsbach (Germany), lawyer and member of the Human Rights Committee of the German Bar Association.
- Timothy Meyer (USA), lawyer and Senior Programme Manager for the Africa Division of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI).
- Vera Ngassa (Cameroon), Justice of the Courts of Appeals and head of the Civil and Customary benches of Cameroon; member of the International Criminal Court Bar Association.
- Hussein Sengu (Tanzania), lawyer and Senior Peace Fellow, Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG).
- Karolina Sibirzeff (Sweden), ILAC Legal Officer and Team Coordinator
- Rhodri Williams (Sweden), ILAC Senior Legal Expert and Team Leader