Judges have been setting cash or property bonds for defendants awaiting trial for so long, a practice that has become acceptable in the Liberian criminal justice system. However, the Resident Judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court, in Kakata, Margibi County has accused most of her colleagues of charging thousands of United States as bond fees to prevent an accused from going to jail.
Judge Mardea Chenoweth said the practice was undermining the administration of justice and is eroding public confidence in the justice system, while in contradiction of Article 21 (d, I and II) of the 1986 Constitution, she said.
That article provides that, “All accused persons shall be bailable upon their personal recognizance or by sufficient sureties, depending upon the gravity of the charge, unless charged for capital offenses or grave offenses as defined by law. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor excessive punishment inflicted.”
Chenoweth who spoke recently during a Legal Aid Clinic and Access to Justice Stakeholders Engagement Dialogue, in Kakata said: “This should stop now and it can only stop when you expose us judges.”
The one-day dialogue was organized by the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) with sponsorship from the USAID-Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program in Liberia (LPAC).
She said the intent of the bond is to ensure that people who are accused of committing bailable crimes are allowed to stay out of jail, with the condition to appear in court for a trial whenever the court needs them. She claimed that it is not the case anymore, “because we the judges are violating your right by demanding excessive bonds for your release.”
Besides judges, Chenoweth told her audience many of whom were residents of Margibi County that lawyers that they hire to plead their cases were themselves involved in the excessive charging of bond fees.
“It is your own lawyers that are making you people to pay excessive bond fees. They sometimes connive with judges and magistrates to charge you for the bond. That is complete exploitation and must stop immediately,” Chenoweth warned, “Lawyers need to be sincere to you because your lives are in their hands and they should be vigilant on your case to ensure access to justice.”
Another exploitation, Chenoweth said, is the prolonged hearing of a case, especially with the magisterial court.
“A Magisterial Court, by law, has 48 hours to decide a case, but as for now, magistrates take weeks to decide a case which is wrong and must stop now,” the judge further stated. “Don’t sit there to allow them to exploit you, because you have the option to complain against any magistrate who has delayed your case to a circuit court on summary proceedings and a judge to the Supreme Court.”
She said judges should allow a defendant who is not deemed a danger to the public or flight risk to be allowed their freedom without putting up thousands of dollars as bonds.
“We need to reform a broken system that punishes people for crimes even if they’re never convicted. We should not be keeping hundreds of people locked up before they have actually been convicted of their crime, because more than 2,000 people were in jail who had not been convicted of a crime, often because they lacked the money to pay bail,” Chenoweth maintained.
When a person is arrested, they are brought before a judge to evaluate the charges and decide whether or not to set a bail — and, if they set bail, at what amount. But bail is not supposed to be set above a person’s ability to pay; people should not be sitting in jail awaiting their trial simply because they are poor, he said.
Cllr. Joyce Reeves-Woods, chairperson of the association of the legal aid committee said the clinic was intended to help citizens of Margibi County especially the less fortunate people who cannot afford legal help to have access to the facility.
She reminded her audience that the clinic would not only be involved in taking people to court but will be pro bono lawyers assigned at the facility and will be handling family and property issues as well as some minor criminal cases.
“This clinic is to help the citizens of Margibi County, those who are unfortunate that we call indigences; it’s not only to take you to court, we will be doing family law, property law and some minor criminal cases,” she explained.
“Sometimes your neighbor will take you to court or when you and your neighbors are in some problems this clinic is here to help. If you and your neighbors and the community have started to work and you see that things cannot be resolved we will invite you to this clinic,” she added.
According to her, lawyers at the clinic will offer help to resolve issues as they are practicing alternative dispute resolution (ADR) which means they are trying to help the citizens solve their problems in order to stop them from fighting each other and causing more chaos.
Cllr. Woods noted that the association made a proposal and sent it to USAID asking for the establishment of Legal Aid Clinics in five of Liberia’s fifteen counties, but the organization said it was using a pilot project in Margibi, Montserrado, Bomi, Grand Bassa and Bong counties.
She further said the LNBA wants to help citizens and it is informing them that the Bar has lawyers who have taken up their time and are willing to render free-of-charge services to them.
She said USAID can only help establish more clinics if the citizens of Margibi County take advantage of the facility, noting that not everything that happens should be taken to the clinic immediately.
“Sometimes there is no need to go to court but some people will say I want to go to court; when you take the man to court and leaves him there he will languish in jail as many of your citizens are in jail only because they didn’t have the opportunity to file a bond or they didn’t have the opportunity to get a lawyer.”
The Chief of Party of the Legal Professional Development and Anti-Corruption Program in Liberia (LPAC), Gerald Meyerman said the clinic is where justice can be adjudicated in a formal and efficient manner.
According to him, the clinic is not meant to assist everyone to go to court but to rather help people find a way of resolving their differences.
Meyerman said going to court is not a mechanism for a resolution as everyone should be encouraged to take advantage of the facility, before reconfirming his commitment to ensuring that the clinic functions well.