Open Justice Initiative
Scoring Justice at the Local Level in Liberia
Accountability Lab Liberia
Despite the central importance of justice to peace in Liberia, very little is being done to help Liberians find justice in any meaningful way. For example, the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been ignored and the Independent National Human Rights Commission (INHRC) - tasked with implementing recommendations of the TRC - stands accused of political bias and a lack of experience in the field of human rights.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf branded corruption “enemy number one” but progress has been limited. Within the legal system, institutions for justice exist but enforcement of their mandates is extremely weak or non-existent. At the local level, institutions are ineffective, and do not provide sufficient incentives for participation in decision-making. Organizations tasked with creating governance often lack sufficient mandate, capacity, resources, or all three. Nepotism, cronyism and patronage are rife and citizens often turn to violence to resolve disputes in the absence of recourse to law.
The formal legal system in the country is slow, inaccessible, expensive and corrupt. A recent report from Human Rights Watch indicated that the judiciary and police were ranked as the most corrupt set of institutions in the country by the government itself – which not only undermines any sense that wrong-doing will be punished but has hollowed out trust in public processes more broadly. The legal system does not work for the average citizen and people with any kind of power, connections or wealth are able to subvert the legal process. As one citizen recently pointed out to the Accountability Lab, “there is simply no justice for the poor.” Another citizen pointed out that he felt that: “the court does not help us; it hunts us.” Unequal protection under the law hinders the ability of citizens to provide for their families, obtain an education and healthcare and function as productive, valued members of Liberian society.
The international community has virtually ignored this problem, focusing largely on the lack of accountability and mismanagement within the executive - and to some degree the legislative - branches of government. Very little attention has been paid to the judicial branch. Moreover, the efforts that have been made to support the judicial process have taken place largely at the level of the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court (through legal framework and capacity building programs), rather than local level courts where the majority of Liberians interact with the legal system. Local courts suffer from a plethora of challenges beyond those outlined above - including lack of integrity; lack of capacity; confusion over jurisdiction and many others. Additionally, there is currently a huge gap in terms of monitoring local courts - no civil society groups or NGOs are monitoring justice at the sub-national level to ensure the accountability of local judges and externally validate the process of obtaining justice by the Liberian population.
The Open Justice Initiative (OJI) has been designed and developed - in conjunction with a highly talented and energetic group of young lawyers, journalists and volunteers - to put in place a monitoring and evaluation system for local courts in Liberia to make them more accountable to the citizens they exist to serve. The pilot phase of the project is focusing on four local courts in Montserrado County - Paynesville, Brewerville, New Kru Town and West Point. These areas were chosen because they are highly populated, low income neighborhoods where significant legal problems exist; and are also logistically accessible from Monrovia, so can be visited by the team easily and often. The idea is to test the concept in these communities, and then roll the project out further as experience, capacity and funding allows.
The pilot phase of the project will focus on three key objectives:
- Working with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in four communities to conduct outreach programs within communities to build an understanding of how the legal system works and their rights and responsibilities under law. This process will also include collaboration with local judges and lawyers to ensure their buy-in and support for the program.
- The OJI team will place volunteer monitors in the courts in these four communities - every day for a year - to objectively monitor the proceedings of the courtroom. This will include monitoring of issues such as: whether Miranda rights are read to defendants; the number of cases heard per day; the punctuality of judges; the presence or absence of state-appointed lawyers or clerks in court; and the return of bond fees to defendants. Every six months, the team will release a “Local Justice Scorecard” that will objectively provide details of this accumulated data to citizens in an easy to understand format through illustrations and articles in local newspapers and on the radio. The team has already agreed for publication of the scorecards through the most popular daily newspaper in the country, Front Page Africa. This process will generate significant local debate about the justice process in Liberia and the accountability of the legal system. Over time, with scorecards released every six months, a clear, trusted and reliable means to monitor local justice in Liberia will emerge.
- The OJI team will carry out regular “perception surveys” of local justice in these four communities, polling local citizens on issues including the fairness, timeliness, integrity, effectiveness and efficiency of the courts - in order to create additional qualitative and quantitative data. This will be synthesized on a regular basis and provide the basis for further citizen-focused analyses that can be used for discussions with Liberians across the country.
Beneficiaries: The project will benefit citizens in the four pilot communities to the largest extent - as these will be the local courts that are monitored and assessed. However, the scorecards and analyses produced will be shared through local and national newspapers and radio stations, thereby ensuring that the debate about the accountability of the local legal system and the pressure for accountability within it will be widespread. Subsequently, the OJI will be rolled out in communities across the country, benefitting Liberians of every geography, language and ethnic group.
Impact as per Index: The difficulties that Liberia faces in providing justice to its citizens and the issues this project will directly address are reflected in Liberia’s WJP Rule of Law Index rankings. Liberia is in the bottom 5 countries globally for both criminal and civil justice (92nd and 96th respectively, out of 97 countries). Regionally, it is ranked bottom, or very close to the bottom of these categories (16th and 18th respectively out of 18 countries). There are sub-indicators for elements of these issues in which Liberia scores almost as low as is possible (on the impartiality of the criminal system, for example, it scores just 0.14; and on discrimination within the civil justice system it scores just 0.21, both the lowest scores of any country on the index). These are precisely the issues that the Open Justice Initiative is looking to measure and assess, and around which the project will generate debate and greater accountability.
Liberia also ranks within the bottom quarter of countries in terms of corruption, including government officials in the judicial branch using public office for private gain (78th out of 97 countries in total with a score of just 0.45 on the behavior of judicial officials) and fundamental rights, including due process of law and rights of the accused (70th out of 97 countries in total, with a score of just 0.37 on due process). As discussed, the absence of justice in Liberia also leads to violent, extra-judicial actions. It is no surprise, therefore, that in terms of the order and security factor, Liberia scores in the bottom fifth of countries (87th out of 97 countries in total; 15th out of 18 in the region) with a score of just 0.16 on the sub-factor that measures resort to violence to redress personal grievances. These are both key factors of the index that this project will address.
Through careful and regular monitoring of courts in the manner described above, the OJI will create social accountability from the bottom-up by empowering citizens with the knowledge to judge more effectively how their courts are performing. This will reduce corruption and ensure that citizens are more willing and able to use the formal justice system as a means to resolve disputes.
The OJI is led by a group of young, dynamic lawyers and journalists - headed by Al Varney Rogers. OJI has also been collaborating with senior figures in the legal/philanthropic sphere in Liberia to receive advice on key issues (such as the design of the court monitoring forms) including Ezekiel Pajibo (a lawyer and formerly of Trust Africa) and Negbalee Warner (a lawyer and formerly of the Open Society Institute for West Africa). Additionally, OJI is collaborating with the judges, magistrates, clerks and other legal officials at the four local courts in Montserrado.
Photo credit: Clair MacDougall
Rule of Law Index Factors: Absence of Corruption (Factor 2), Open Government (Factor 3), Fundamental Rights (Factor 4), Order and Security (Factor 5), Civil Justice (Factor 7), Criminal Justice (Factor 8), and Informal Justice (Factor 9).
Issue Areas: Government, Human Rights, Judiciary, Media, Security and Law Enforcement, and Youth.