“The cement that holds together the national fabric” is how Albert Porte, the veteran writer and constitutional analyst, described the Judiciary.
And yet, that was the primary concern of Justice Francis Korkpor when last Monday he addressed the opening ceremony of the October Term of the Supreme Court of Liberia.
The Chief Justice chided the National Legislature for slashing the budget of the Judiciary, which he described as being “co-equal” to the two other branches of government, the Legislature and Executive. He took serious exception to this budgetary slashing which tends to undermine the integrity and efficiency of the Judiciary.
Commenting on the 2014-2015 National Budget, Chief Justice Korkpor lamented that the lawmakers had gone ahead and “reduced” the initial budget of US$19,000,575 to US$18,618,722. “This hindered our operation,” he said.
Explaining in his own words the critical role of the third branch of government, the Chief Justice said the Judiciary “is the cornerstone and foundation of the nation. It is the anchor that firmly holds democracy in place with all its attending attributes.”
A critical part of this judicial process is the Stupendiary Magisterial Courts, which still uses typewriters in this advanced Age of Information and Communication Technology. “We need to upgrade the tools of our clerks, he stressed, in order that they may do proper record keeping,” he told the Daily Observer from Accra yesterday. “We need to upgrade the Magistrates by hiring lawyers to preside over these courts. Right now, not all the magisterial judges are lawyers, a situation he described as “a professional handicap.”
“But hiring lawyers costs money,” Mr. Justice Korkpor added.
“We need to computerize the entire Judiciary, especially the magisterial courts. We need to train the clerks to operate computers and technicians to maintain them.
The Chief Justice said judges hold the rank of Deputy Ministers and need to be paid accordingly.
He laid particular emphasis on the magisterial courts because it is in these courts that the most common cases are heard. Slowness in administering their work adds to the delay of justice and contributes to the overcrowding of our prisons, and this poses an even greater problem, he averred.
Over the years, beginning long before and after the civil war, the budget for the Judiciary has remained very low as compared to the two other branches of government, the Chief Justice explained. But he acknowledged that “since the inauguration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the budget of the Judiciary has steadily increased, even though not at the same pace and level of the other branches of government.”
He further commended the President who, Justice Korkpor said, on her way out of the Temple of Justice on Monday, pledged that she would work with the Legislature to improve the situation.
Out of the just passed 2015/2016 budget in the amount of US$622,743,420, the Judiciary sought US$26,687,889 as part of its allotment. “The accompanying budget notes clearly explained the reasons behind the increment,” the C.J. informed his audience. “We held meetings with some key members of the Legislature, followed by the appearance of the Court Administrator before Budget Committees. He made all the necessary justifications that additional funds were required to implement its program that needs amendment in the jury law.”
Explaining this to the Daily Observer yesterday morning, the Chief Justice recalled a problem that the people of Liberia know only too well—that the current jury system is flawed and this has caused very serious problems that have undermined the integrity of the Liberian Judiciary.
The Constitution requires that people facing criminal trial should be “tried by their peers.” But, the C.J. told the Daily Observer, the current system comprises what he called “professional jurors” who see this as a business and go from court to court offering their services as jurors. This breeds a lot of corruption and undermines due process.
The proper thing to do is to engage credible people in society to serve jury duty—people who are, for the most part, above reproach, to judge their peers.
To fix all these problems and lift the Judiciary to where it ought to be costs money. And the sooner the Legislature steps up to the plate and gives the Judiciary the budgetary resources it needs and asks for, the more credible our Judiciary will become. The stronger Liberian democracy will be.
We appeal to the Legislature, both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to heed the call of Chief Justice Korkpor and empower the Judiciary with the proper budgetary resources needed to raise to a higher standard jurisprudence in Liberia.