Liberia: A New Judiciary?

“I am renewing my commitment to continue to dispense justice without fear and favor. And ready to continue to treat all party litigants appearing before me equally, without regard to status, whether rich or poor,” Yuoh said.

.... Chief Justice Yuoh vows

Chief Justice Sie-A-Nyene Yuoh has stated that while a lack of proper state funding for the judiciary is undermining the rule of law, peace, and security, the judiciary under her watch would not stray from its primary mission of dispensing justice without fear or favor.

This commitment by Yuoh, who is the nation’s third female chief justice in its 175-year history, comes as she inherits a judiciary that is beleaguered by widespread mistrust and public opinion that the judiciary is corrupt and politicized.

In her speech at the opening of the Supreme Court's October Term, the judicial system, which Youh has promised to fix, is currently suffering from an overcrowded case docket and insufficient number of courts available to hear these cases in a timely manner. 

This situation has resulted in all of the country’s jails being overcrowded with pretrial detainees, many of whose cases are hardly looked into during various court terms. Pretrial detainees, according to estimates, account for 77% of inmates at the Monrovia Central Prison, in violation of Liberia’s 1986 Constitution, which calls for a speedy trial.

The violation, according to Yuoh, is something that she and her colleagues on the Supreme Court are aware of and are resolved to discourage the filibustering by lawyers and clients, whose sole intention is to delay proceedings via superfluous legal technicalities that undermine the goals of justice.

“Let me reiterate our abiding conviction to uphold the constitutional principles of due process guaranteed to all citizens and residents alike, and our resolve to discourage the filibustering by lawyers and clients, determined to procrastinate cases in our courts through unnecessary legal technicalities just to frustrate the ends of justice.” 

“My colleagues and I are in full agreement and are mindful that this Supreme Court is the last place of hope; and as such we are resolved to reposition our courts to a judicial stature that will not only be highly respected but revered by all despite the changes of our modern society,” Yuoh said.

“Paramount to all this, is our resolve to not only hear numerous cases but to concurrently render opinions thereon timely and expeditiously.  As we set this premise, we expect that the trial judges will naturally follow our example.”

However, Youh, who spent nearly nine years on the Supreme Court Bench as an Associate Justice before being nominated and confirmed as Chief Justice a month ago, is also inheriting a court that has been dogged by allegations of corruption.

Her colleague, Associate Justice Yussif D. Kaba, last year referred to the  Judiciary as “a Black Cow in the government” and that “we don’t tell ourselves the truth, go and read the American Department of State report…”

According to the United States 2021 human rights report, “Judges and magistrates are subjected to influence and engage in corruption. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases.”

Critics have also said that the perceived use of the judiciary to protect individuals with money demonstrates the judicial system’s lack of independence. Fears of continuous influence over the court have been raised as a result of Justice Youh's association with her ex-husband, Senator Edwin Melvin Snowe of Bomi County, a powerful Liberian politician.

“Some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcome of some trials appeared to be predetermined, especially when the accused persons were politically connected or socially prominent,” the US State Department’s 2021 human rights report said. 

Youh however promised to work with the Liberian National Bar Association and the media to develop judicial policies that will adequately explain, ‘in layman’s terms, the functions of the courts in the justice system “in order to remove the clouds of misconceptions, false innuendos, and vicious criticisms that are tainting the image of the Judiciary.”

The Chief Justice added that she remains confident that the Supreme Court Bench will be steadfast in upholding the values and purposes for which the courts of this “Republic were created.”

“I am renewing my commitment to continue to dispense justice without fear and favor. And ready to continue to treat all party litigants appearing before me equally, without regard to status, whether rich or poor,” Yuoh said. I owe no allegiance to anyone but to the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia.  Let me reiterate that we will work with the Liberian National Bar Association and the National Association of Trial Judges of Liberia to review and conclude on the draft rules for our ethical investigating bodies in order to eliminate unethical law practitioners in a swift and decisive manner, rather than giving warnings in our opinions.” 

“I herewith urge judges and magistrates to attach more solemnity to the Judicial Canons, particularly Judicial Canon Five, which states that “the court is the last place of hope for man on earth,” Youh said. “When party litigants appear before your respective courts, they bear the anticipation, and rightfully so, that their rights will be fairly and speedily adjudicated, and that justice will prevail irrespective of the parties involved. In fact, the pursuit of justice is the very essence of the establishment of this building and its premises, named and styled the ‘Temple of Justice’ which is the umbrella of all courts in our jurisdiction.” 

Meanwhile, the Minister of Justice, Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, has reminded Justice Yuoh, that a lady justice is blindfolded, symbolizing that justice, and should be rendered without passion and prejudice.

According to Dean, for cases to be adjudicated speedily, it means that justices have to simplify and or dispose of some of their procedures, which impede the speedy disposition of cases.

“Motions or restoring to remedial processes to delay justice or hang justice must be discouraged,” Dean said. “The practice of filing frivolous suits should be condemned, decried and eliminated. Our courts are not hustle grounds.”

Meanwhile, the justice minister pledged the support and cooperation of the Executive Branch. “It has been said that Montesquieu, the concept of separation of powers, does not imply antagonism exclusively.”

The Supreme Court opening was graced by President George Weah and First Lady Clar Weah, Senate Pro Tempore Albert Chie, Speaker of House of Representatives Bhofal Chambers, Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, and members of the Diplomatic Corps.