Reform of the Liberian justice system should be made a top priority for donors. However, this report, published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), illustrates that donor efforts to promote long-term justice reform can only succeed if the Liberian government puts justice reform prominently on the agenda and if the legal and judicial fraternities take the lead effort in the reform process. Community-based approaches, with a sustained focus on gender issues and on the urban/rural divide, are also needed to empower individuals and to help people navigate the statutory and customary legal systems in Liberia.
The justice system was manipulated by powerful individuals in pre-war Liberia to maintain and legitimise their power. The culture of impunity marked by the lack of impartial institutions was a catalyst for war and helped to nurture conflict in Liberia. Various challenges continue to paralyse the justice system, including a lack of independence from the executive and lack of legal rights awareness among citizens.
A dramatic overhaul of the Liberian justice system is essential for lasting peace and stability. Justice reform is also essential if related initiatives such as the Governance, Economic Management and Assistance Plan (GEMAP) are to succeed.
In the short term, donors should prioritise the following:
- Support nationwide court-building projects. In particular, donors should fund a major project, to commence immediately, to rebuild and refurbish magistrates’ courts and circuit courts in all counties.
- Provide training programmes for judges, justices of the peace and customary law officials. Ensure that magistrates’ courts and circuit courts have adequate resources for record keeping and case management, including typewriters and stationery.
- Continue and strengthen efforts to disseminate legal texts, including copies of the constitution and the codes of civil and criminal law and procedure to all magistrates’ courts and circuit courts.
- Grant technical and financial assistance to the higher-level judiciary for the design of legal training for justices of the peace, magistrates, circuit court judges and state-sponsored customary law officials.
- Support civil society organisations both financially and technically in designing and implementing community-based justice programmes, especially in rural areas.
Donors should provide significant technical and financial assistance for a new justice reform programme in Liberia, however, long-term justice reform is impossible without a strong commitment from the highest level of government. The legal and judicial fraternities should also take the lead effort and act as central players in the design and implementation of the programme. Medium and long-term efforts should focus on:
- Nurturing a working relationship between the statutory and state-sponsored customary law systems by training customary law officials and strengthening the appeals process of the customary system.
- Advancing gender justice by reforming laws that restrict women’s rights and drafting progressive gender-sensitive legislation, including in the area of domestic violence and reproductive rights.
- Making the creation, funding and support for community-based justice programmes in rural areas a primary focus. Community-based programmes would empower individuals and communities that rarely interact with formal power structures and inform them of their legal rights.
- Tackling corruption in the justice system by raising the salaries of judicial officers. The government should aim to foster judicial independence and fight corruption by creating a Judicial Service Commission to appoint judges.
- Addressing corruption and accountability problems. The higher-level judiciary should advocate the inclusion of justices of the peace on the payroll, uphold literacy and qualifications standards for justices of the peace and include them in judicial training programmes.
- Ensuring accountability within the statutory courts. The judiciary should monitor the performance of justices of the peace, magistrates and circuit courts, and issue a revised code for judicial officers and lawyers, with complaint procedures.