Liberia: “Justice Is Missing in Rural Liberia”

Supreme Court of Liberia.

... Says Judge Nancy Sammy, as she decries corruption in the judiciary… “our colleagues' corrupt practices spilling over all judges 

The assigned Judge of Criminal Court B, Judge Nancy Sammy, has warned that much is not being done to improve access to justice for millions of Liberians living in rural areas, as such situations undermine the rule of laws. 

Judge Sammy, who also presides over the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Lofa County, noted that while justice might probably be in Montserrado County, it is missing in the rest of the counties because the process is hard to access. At the same time, she said, corruption in the judiciary makes matters worse. 

“Maybe only in Montserrado County there is access to justice. But, people residing in the interior do not have access to justice,” Judge Sammy said, adding, “it is disturbing that the country focuses too much on the top tier of the Judiciary instead of availing justice to millions of Liberians who need it in Liberia's rural areas. 

Judge Sammy of Criminal Court 'B'

In Lofa County, where Judge Sammy presides over the 10th Judicial Circuit, which serves the county with a population of 276,863 there are only two public defenders, both of who lack the logistics to visit the eight ministerial courts regularly — leaving many who cannot afford lawyers to be jailed easily. 

A public defender is a government-paid lawyer to represent people who otherwise cannot reasonably afford to hire a lawyer to defend themselves in a trial.

The two public defenders of Lofa County, according to  Judge Sammy, are stationed in the Voinjama District, which is the county’s capital, while the remaining five districts — are missing a public defender. 

Lofa is the third most populous county in Liberia, according to the 2008 census results. 

"You cannot say there is access to justice in the country, when justice actors like the city solicitor, and public defender, are not available in the magisterial courts," Judge Sammy said as she expressed her disappointment in the country's judiciary. 

"How do you expect the two public defenders to go to those magisterial courts when there is no logistics to do so. Will we say justice is accessible to our people?" the judge asked as she deliver her charge in response to Judge Ousman Feika of the Criminal Court' D', at the opening of the  May 2022 term for the Criminal Courts in Montserrado County. 

" How do you think our people, who go to those magisterial courts to seek justice, get the justice they are seeking for?" In some cases, because of the unavailability of Justice actors in the county, magistrates somewhat served as city solicitor, public defender, and lawyer to the accused person." 

"How can justice be accessible in such a situation?"  she asked again.  "This  is wrong, and something else needs to be done immediately to ensure that justice is accessible to everyone."

Judge Sammy's charges about the country's judiciary shortcomings come as Chief Justice Francis  Korkpor lashes out at judges for not executing their judicial duties timely -- resulting in overcrowded prison facilities across the country.

Chief Justice Korkpor, who has been blunt about the ‘rottenness' of the judiciary —  accused judges of failing to execute their judicial duties in a timely fashion as they keep in jail individuals accused of a crime in jail over the period allowed by statute without trial — a practice he says amounts to human rights violation.

His rare revelation comes at a time when judges across the country have issued a plea for state security protection on grounds that judges' lives are under threat as a result of the nature of their jobs.

Currently, only the five justices of the Supreme Court are provided with armed security protection, with judges of circuit courts being left without a security detail, which is now prompting the judges to plead for protection.

“Our law provides for speedy trial; there are adequate provisions of law for the adjudication of cases,” the Chief Justice noted while delivering his charge at the opening of the May Term of Courts for the Criminal Courts at the Temple of Justice in Montserrado County.  “It is unacceptable and a human rights violation. These are some of the things that are causing overcrowding at prison facilities."

“This needs to stop. It has divided the family. And parents are no longer able to provide for their kids, to pay their school fees, and even house rent, because of the failure to afford them a speedy and fair trial," Chief Justice Korkpor added. "This paints a negative picture of our justice system."

Meanwhile, Judge Sammy, who is the President of the National Trial Judges Association of Liberia, also in her charge accused some of her colleagues of being corrupt — a behavior she believes is severely undermining the population's trust in the core administration of justice in the country. 

Judge Sammy noted that judges need to accept the fact that some of them are corrupt.

“Everybody is accusing us of being corrupt, and we have to face the fact, whether you like it or not. But the truth is the issue of corruption is in the judiciary. The claim of Corruption is spilling over every one of us,” Judge Sammy said. “There are bad apples among us judges, but there are also good people among us, judges.”

Among the many problems with the Judiciary is the issue of corruption that has beclouded it – and just last year, Associate Justice Yusuf D. Kaba made it clear to the public that the Judiciary is the “Black Cow” of the government — warning judges to change their behaviors or risk losing public confidence, something he said would cause chaos in the country.

Separately, the Chief Justice is on record decrying the involvement of judges in bribery and cautioned them to desist from the practice because it tarnished the image of the judiciary. 

And countless US State Department Reports on Human Rights Practices in Liberia have clearly accused judges and magistrates across the country who are subject to influence and engage in corruption. 

The report notes that Judges sometimes solicit bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases; and that defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.

Judge Sammy has meanwhile called for a judicial retreat before the retirement of Justice Korkpor by September. 

“Your honor [Chief Justice Korkpor], this retreat is very important before you retire. We have to invite people to speak to us, judges. We have to thoroughly review ourselves during the retreat.  Corruption, Your Honor is real within the judiciary,” Judge Sammy added. “You like it or not, but we have to face the fact that it is spilling over everyone.” 

The Liberian Chief Justice turns 70 on September 5, this year. Article 72(b) of the Constitution of Liberia provides that “the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts of records shall be retired at the age of seventy…”

Section 2.5 of the Judicial Law of Liberia, among others, sets the second Monday in October and March of each year as the day the Supreme Court shall open for the conduct of business.