“Still Looking for Justice in Liberia” investigates the status of the access to justice in Liberia. In 2019, an ILAC team of experts representing four ILAC member organisations met with formal and customary justice actors to assess how to expand access to justice by improving the effectiveness of the two legal systems, as well as the interplay between them. 

Liberia’s two parallel legal systems both fulfill an important role. Customary authorities keep the peace in rural areas and absorb a daily caseload of minor grievances that, taken together, would swamp the already overburdened formal courts. At the same time, traditional authorities have neither capacity nor a legal mandate to address serious crimes of violence and are therefore dependent on the formal justice system to deal effectively with such crimes. 

However, due to lack of resources and capacity, the formal justice system is perceived as not holding up its end of this bargain. When justice seekers turn to the formal justice system they are often met with countless unpredictable fees that they have to pay to have case brought forward, if they cannot afford to pay, the offender is likely to be released back to their communities without prosecution or explanation as to why.

As a result, courts in Liberia have become at best a bottleneck and at worst an obstacle to access to justice, failing to live up to their potential to resolve disputes, and complicating the ability of the customary authorities to play their complementary role. The formal justice systems failure has effectively led to cases of mob violence with individuals targeting police, court facilities, and the property of suspects. There is also talk of increased “bush justice” whereby suspects are subjected to extra-legal proceedings and severe punishments. In a conflict-affected setting like Liberia, violent responses to grievance can spill over into more generalised insecurity. Finding ways to ensure that justice is effective, accessible and satisfactory for ordinary Liberians is therefore a crucial step towards further stabilisation and conflict prevention in Liberia. 

Key recommendations

1. Address dysfunctionalities of the formal justice system 

The Government should consider how best to restore public trust in the judiciary in all parts of the country. Answers include ensuring that all levels of government demonstrate transparency and integrity, addressing the resource and budget gap that lead courts to pass costs to users, reforming bail and bond practices and requiring prosecutors to lay down cases unsupported by evidence. 

2. Help customary justice achieve greater harmony with the Constitution 

Customary leaders should continue to receive better information and guidance about the Constitution and laws of Liberia. However, creation of an intermediate appeals body with formal and traditional representation would create a more formal connection between customary and formal routes to justice. Such a body could help filter appeals in the formal system, addressing backlogs there, while also providing a more transparent means for supervising and reviewing customary decisions for compliance with constitutional norms. 

3. Increase support to legal aid 

Greater access to reliable legal information, advice and representation is badly needed in rural areas. A new Legal Aid Policy is a positive development, but implementation may be time and resource intensive. ILAC encourages all parties involved in legal aid to explore interim options compatible with the aims of the policy that could be achieved through support to established justice actors under existing law.