Trust, according to the English dictionary, is the act of believing in the honesty and reliability of others. There are two key words in this definition, and they are honesty and reliability. Honesty is that quality that will make you to be trusted; while reliability is the quality of being dependable. These definitions lead one to believe that one cannot be trusted until he/she builds trust.
This brings us to a recent statement by Swedish envoy Yaser Abd EL Hamid urging graduating magistrates of the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute to build trust by being transparent and credible because “Trust Builds Peace.” According to the Swedish envoy, trust can only be built if lawyers and judges abide by the constitution and uphold their ethics. He said, “Trust can only be built when you allow dialogue with the people you serve, when you are transparent and open, and when corruption-free access to justice is realized.”
We do not know from what standpoint the Swedish envoy made the selection to speak to the graduating magistrates, on building trust by avoiding corruption and living by ethics in their adjudication of legal matters. Nevertheless, it is well known to Liberians and foreigners in this country that getting justice comes with a price, which involves bribing the judge to either disregard a case in favor of the offender, or delay the case to frustrate the offended party. It may be recalled that during observance of International Human Rights Day in 2013, a Liberian Human Rights Lawyer, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, stated in the auditorium of the University of Liberia that justice is given to people who have money, and any poor man or woman in the hinterland wishing to get justice must be prepared to cover long distances to get to the court.
In support of the aforementioned, the 2016 US State Department’s Human Rights Report revealed that judges in Liberia accept bribes to award damages in civil cases. Admitting to this allegation, the late Judge Johannes Zogbay Zlahn once said, “We as judges have allowed our fraternal relationships and love for our brothers and sisters who are lawyers to influence our decisions, which have invariably led to various disciplinary actions being taken against us.” These unethical and unwholesome practices on the part of Liberian judges in the judicial system recently led the Supreme Court to recently suspend Judge Emery Paye.
Judges are to be impartial and to always step aside in any case involving conflict of interest in accordance with the natural law of justice, which states that, “A man cannot be a judge in his own cause.”
John Stuart Mills, an English philosopher, said in his theory of Egalitarianism that a decision is ethical when one covers his head with a veil of ignorance to impartially make a decision, allowing all parties to equally have the benefit and harm where necessary. It is predicated upon this, we believe, that Chief Justice Francis Korkpor warned ‘partisan judges’ to desist, admonishing them to either be independent, or be chastised.
Liberia is not ignorant to the consequences of injustice. When some groups of the Liberian population were denied economic justice, we saw a bloody coup in 1980. We have also witnessed bloody civil wars because of the same injustice; yet judges continue to deprive people of justice thus leaving them discontented and agitated. Knowing the consequences of bribery and cheating in a justice system, the good Lord told the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 16:18-20: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
The advice from Swedish envoy Yaser Abd EL Hamid and other references provided in this editorial should be seriously considered by Liberian judges. The Judicial Branch by constitution has the highest decision-making power in the land. All constitutional and other issues that are arising today including those regarding the pending elections can be decided by no other branch than the Judiciary. Perhaps the judges of our courts are not aware, but with all the hurdles Liberia is facing, people will always refer to the court as the only arbiter of justice; trusting that there the issue can be resolved, and everyone will be satisfied. But in a counterproductive reaction to citizens, judges have been influenced by money and higher-ups; and thwarting justice thus influencing mob justice.
Besides the resolve of Liberians to keep the peace despite the frustration they continue to encounter, judges must know that the peace of this country heavily hangs on justice and the Judiciary is the key actor. It is not so much the impression of trust, but the expression of trustworthiness by the deliberations of our judges. Judges and justices must do all they can to live by their ethics and build trust in the citizens as we all strive to nurture the peace.