Building trust and underpinning justice in Liberia

Written by: Blair Glencourse

Published On: August 21, 2017

Establishing a legal system that serves everyone equally is proving a long and difficult process. But, community mediation efforts are bolstering trust, resolving conflicts and providing a base for broader legal reforms.

Logan Town is a bustling low-income community near the seaport in Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia. Over 70,000 people cram themselves into tin-roofed shacks, hustling every day to make ends meet. Many struggle to survive in such a poor, densely populated area, which inevitably leads to disputes, disagreements and crime. Domestic violence and theft are common. There is very little enforcement of the law because there is only one police station, no local court and no trained lawyers.

When residents of Logan Town face legal challenges, the lack of legitimacy, affordability and accessibility of the formal justice system means there are few actions they can take. To file a complaint is difficult and time-consuming. It means travelling to another neighbourhood, dealing with a police force that has been ranked by Liberians as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, and foregoing hours of time that could be spent earning a living.

Blair Glencorse on community justice teams

If the case goes to court, legal costs can be unaffordable, bond fees for release are often collected without being returned to litigants, and magistrates are routinely bribed by those accused of crimes. The cost of legal proceedings in Logan Town can be as much as $150: more than the cost of rent for a year. The outcome, as I’ve heard continually in Liberia, is that ‘there is no justice for the poor’, while the powerful and wealthy are able to act with impunity.

This lack of trust in the system and the frustration it creates is very dangerous. The poor often take the law into their own hands, with mob violence erupting in cases where the community feels the only option is to collectively punish perpetrators for alleged wrong-doings. Recently, across Liberia, I’ve heard about angry members of the public beating a man outside a police station, burning down the house of an alleged rapist, and killing three suspected criminals. Mob violence is also illegal, of course, but the cycle of impunity continues as the police are unable to track and apprehend the perpetrators.

“ This lack of trust in the system and the frustration it creates is very dangerous. The poor often take the law into their own hands

Overcoming these dynamics and building a legal system that serves everyone equally in Liberia is a long and difficult process. It begins with legal structures and training that can provide the framework for fair and equal treatment under the law. A Governance Commission is in place to review the alignment of laws and policies with institutions, for example, and Law Reform Commission is working to modernise and harmonise legal frameworks. The Ministry of Justice continues to train judges, and the United Nations is building capacity within the police and strengthening the prison system.

However, many of these efforts can seem a long way from the everyday realities of residents in somewhere like Logan Town, where the role of law is misunderstood and the rule of law is absent. Moving beyond institutions, a critical piece of the puzzle is supporting communities to mediate disputes and build trust in ways that support peace and stability. The Carter Center has worked closely with rural communities in particular for many years to train community legal advisors, bridge the gap between formal and informal justice mechanisms and find peaceful solutions to conflicts.

At Accountability Lab Liberia, we’ve been working in Logan Town with the Citizens’ Bureau to train a group of citizens as part of Community Justice Teams (CJTs). These 13 mediators – selected carefully to represent the demographics of the community – work with citizens to resolve disputes before they reach the point of violence or need to be taken to the police. They establish ground rules, such as confidentiality, honesty and inclusivity, and then listen to the details of the case. The process builds an understanding of a fair compromise, sometimes over the course of many weeks.

Since 2014, the Citizens’ Bureau has resolved over 150 cases on everything from domestic violence to land rights issues, with none of these cases falling back into conflict. Local residents are made aware of the CJTs through a town crier, who walks around the community regularly reminding people to contact a mediator if they are facing a problem. Recently, for example, the group mediated a dispute among two sisters who were arguing over the inheritance of the family home after the death of their parents.

The effective management of these challenges requires contextualised knowledge that only comes from people who have lived in these communities and understand local customs and beliefs, many of which stem from traditional understandings and are not reflected in formal law. In another recent case, for example, the group mediated a case involving a 16-year-old girl who had been accused of witchcraft, with her family ordered to leave Logan Town. Eventually, an agreement was reached with neighbours that the girl could stay at the local church for three months to ‘pray away bad spirits’, and she is now fully integrated back into the community.

In this way, the CJTs are able to bridge the gap between informal beliefs and more formal understandings of justice. These efforts have saved citizens tens of thousands of dollars that would otherwise have been spent on bribes and legal fees; and a cumulative total of over two years of time they would have spent navigating the legal system. Through resolving disputes before they reach the courts, the mediators are also reducing the burden on the formal justice system.

The rule of law requires legal structures, institutions, judges, lawyers and juries. But, it also requires a larger process to build trust and an understanding among citizens that their voice is important, that their claims are legitimate and that their interests will be represented fairly. In communities like Logan Town, a starting point is community mediation efforts that bolster this trust as a platform both to resolve conflicts and on which to base broader legal reforms.