Improving Access to Justice in Post-War Liberia

By Jonathan Iwaskiw Post date: Feb 04, 2016


Issues in Democracy Promotion

 “An often overlooked yet critical element to achieving this aim [of post-conflict reconstruction] is the prioritization of the restructuring and empowerment of community-based justice mechanisms that have been damaged or discredited by the war.” - Jimmy Carter
In 2006, The Carter Center partnered with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission to provide free legal services to rural villages in 5 of Liberia’s Southeastern counties. The project is known as the Improving Access to Justice in Liberia Program. The Access to Justice Program is one of the contributors to the Carter Center’s overarching goal in reconstructing the role of law in post-war Liberia. The legal services were implemented through the training and installation of 32 Community Legal Advisors under the management of Carter Center and JPC lawyers. The CLA’s main objectives are to: help people interact with government, courts, and traditional authorities, mediate small-scale conflicts, and advocate for justice. This case study will provide background on the organizations and nation involved, describe the goals and implementation of the project, and provide data to evaluate the effectiveness of the program determining possible solutions.

Background Information on the organizations

The Carter Center was established in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter. The Carter Center is one of the most prominent U.S. Democracy promoters known for their work in high-risk unstable regions. The Carter Center pools resources and funding from a variety of governmental and non-governmental sources with the main donors on this project being USAID and Humanity Unitedi. In the Access to Justice Project in Liberia, the Carter Center partnered with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. The JPC Liberia is a civic education advocacy group providing free legal services to Liberians with an emphasis on Christian values. The organization was formed in 1991 and has worked throughout Liberia’s 2 civil wars. Finally, Liberia’s Ministry of Justice has also been instrumental by outlining problems and setting goals for the reconstruction of the rule of law.


The Program

The Access to Justice in Liberia program began in 2006: three years after the Accra Accord was signed effectively ending Liberia’s second civil war. At the request of the Government of Liberia, the Carter Center and JPC seek to impress to access to justice for Liberians. Improving access to legal services tackles two key problems in post-war Liberia. First, it addresses the lack of physical materials such as legal documents, office tools, and buildings. The second problem is the lack of effective outlets for conflict dispute, especially potentially violent conflicts. Allowing Liberian’s to utilize these services and materials is a key part of reconstructing the rule of law in Liberia. The four goals outlined by the Carter Center are as follows:
• Provide information on rights and the law to citizens and community leaders;
• Help people interact with government, courts, and traditional authorities;
• Mediate small-scale conflicts;
• Advocate for justice.ii
The sad reality is that Liberians don’t have many options for legal assistance in matters that are below the magisterial court. The program would allow alternatives to a court system (one which was modeled after the U.S. system) which has historically used as political tools by corrupt politiciansiii. In addition, the customary judicial process in rural communities usually entails arbitration through a tribal leader or chief. These authority figures are often ill-equipped to administer justice whether they have an unethical interpretation of the law (in comparison to national constitutional intent) or a misinterpretation of the law resulting in decisions based on personal opinion. Finally, the program supplements Liberia’s judicial infrastructure with financial and human capital. Map of counties affected by the program iv



Starting in 2006, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, under the management of the Carter Center, implemented their Community Legal Advisor Program. The program began with the training of 32 legal advisors spread throughout the 5 Southeastern counties of Liberia (Sinoe, River Gee, Maryland, and Grand Gedeh,) and three counties in the North (Bong, Lofa and Nimba.) The training is provided by a group of lawyers from the JPC divided into groups of 2 for each countyv. The legal advisors herald from the communities and nearby communities they intend to serve. They are trained to mediate small-scale disputes and administer legal advice inside their office or in the communities they serve. The most critical objectives of the CLAs according to the JPC are as follows:
◾Mediate disputes
◾Provide assistance in navigating authority to clients
◾Give information regarding legal questions
◾Conduct rule of law trainings & workshops
◾Serve on GBV (gender-based violence), and rule of law coordination meetings
◾Monitor the police, courts, government institutions & correctionsvi
“When I don’t have clients in the office, I visit them in the communities. I visit 4 or 5 per day,” says Linda Tokpah. Linda is a community legal advisor in Bong Countyvii. The CLA’s are stationed in towns around these rural communities, instead of cities such as Monrovia, so that they can reach their clients easily. Most of the cases CLAs handle involve labor, family, and child law. An example of a common proceeding is a March 2008 case in Grand Gadeh. The case involved an 11-year old girl who sought the help of a JPC advisor when she was banished from her home. The girl explained that she had gotten pregnant, and her father, out of anger, threatened to beat her if she ever came home because she was arranged to marry another man. The CLA convinced both parties to meet for a mediation that lasted more than 8 hours. The CLA explained that, under the law, the girl was too young to be arranged in such a marriage, and that the man that impregnated the girl should be charged with statutory rape. The father eventually decided to sign the agreement allowing her daughter to move back into the home, although it was an extremely difficult process because of traditional customsviii.
A second goal of the CLA’s is to provide channels for these rural clients to interact with the Liberian judicial system. This allows the JPC and Carter Center to monitor judicial processes and administer international legal advocacy. For example, in April, 2008, a man in Grand Kru was illegally detained because he got into a verbal argument with a local magistrate. The CLA assigned the case, Gabriel Nimely, advocated on behalf of the detained man trying to explain to the local police station that the imprisonment of the man was ‘abuse’. After an unsuccessful first try, Gabriel told the local authorities that he could report their behavior to the county police commander. The threat of reprimand alone caused the detainee to be releasedix. The case shows us that CLA’s can be utilized to monitor the manner in which local justice is administered while also providing access to his or her clients to plead their cases to higher nodes of justice. CLAs also have the option to refer clients to American Bar Association attorneys in Harper, Maryland Countyx. These cases are usually more serious in nature requiring criminal lawyers or litigation.
Results: Evaluation and Lesson learned.
By 2011, the CLA’s working in Liberia had taken over 3000 casesxi. The Improving Access to Justice Program in Liberia has had mixed success. The approach to evaluation is a difference-on-difference approach where we measure not only how well the program functions but at what rate do these processes improvexii. Randomized Controlled Trials (RTC’s) are also used in the evaluation process in the form of surveys conducted in 2008 compared to exit interviews several years laterxiii. These can help us create a counterfactual: how would local legal problems be solved if the CLA’s were not present. One finding of the evaluation was that the many Liberians still have the opinion that traditional law administered by chiefs and magistrates supersedes national law. The figure below helps illustrate:
The graphs illustrate how most people agree that customary forms of law trumps formal law with males being more likely to agree with the statement. An issue that the program has struggled solving is managing the balance between traditional and formal law delineating which laws are compatible. A possible approach the Carter Center could take is to emphasis a larger role in reporting cases and incidents to higher authority figures in the Liberia Ministry of Justice.
Another part of the same study shows us that the people interviewed thought that customary processes of justice were fairer than formal processes.
One reason these results show a preference towards customary forms of law is that people are heavily influenced by their local community leader. We have to remember that these villagers live in close proximity to these magistrates and chiefs and have to deal with them on a weekly or daily basis. A lesson to be learned is that the bonds and relationships of villagers and their authority figure is more intimate than the relationship with the local CLAs. In the future, these strong bonds within the communities will have to be overcome using a different tactic.
Looking Ahead:
It is clear that the greatest benefactor of the CLAs are women, children, and ethnic minorities. The Access to Justice Project is successful in its goal of educating and advising those who are brave enough to enlist their help. The disparaging of these customary laws that do not protect the rights of women and children should be a top priority for the Carter Center in the futurexvi. As Liberia distances itself farther and farther from its past wars, the nation should begin make progress rather than heal the wounds of war. Meanwhile, the JPC and Carter Center will continue their policy of helping those that ask for it. The future hope is that the program will actively seek out cases rather than waiting for clients to come forward. The biggest priority of the program should be to stop the self-damaging cycle of reverting to lawless systems of justice and oppressive customary traditions and laws.
i Carter Center Website
ii Improving Access To Justice In Liberia,
iii Van De Velde, Jacqueiline. "Access to Justice in Liberia: How the NGO Community Is Rethinking Justice Systems in Africa." Georgia Political Review (2014). Print.
iv "Liberia Counties Map." The Carter Center. Web.
v Kwaune, C.Y. “ TCC, JCP Expand Partnership in Leeward Counties.”
vii Community Legal Advisors in Liberia. Linda Tohkpa. Video.
viii jeffreylarkinaustin “Child-Parent Conflict,” Case Study Page. 2011
ix Jefferylarkinaustin “Improper Detention,” Case Study Page. 2011
x Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic. Fordham Law School “Handbook for the Justice and Peace Commission: Best Practices of Community Legal Advice Programs, Program Assessment and Recommendations” Page 131 December 2008
xi Carter Center Press Release “Carter Center and JPC Expand Liberian Community Legal Advice
Services Into Nine Counties” 1/19/2011
xii Siddiqi, Bilal. "Enhancing Legal Empowerment Through Engagement with Customary Justice Systems." International Development Law Organization (2012). Web. <>. Page 15
xiii Siddiqi, Bilal. "Enhancing Legal Empowerment Through Engagement with Customary Justice Systems." International Development Law Organization (2012). Web. <>. Pages 15-16
xiv Siddiqi, Bilal. "Enhancing Legal Empowerment Through Engagement with Customary Justice Systems." International Development Law Organization (2012). Web. <>. Pages 15-18
xv Siddiqi, Bilal. "Enhancing Legal Empowerment Through Engagement with Customary Justice Systems." International Development Law Organization (2012). Web. <>. Pages 15-18
xvi Siddiqi, Bilal. "Enhancing Legal Empowerment Through Engagement with Customary Justice Systems." International Development Law Organization (2012). Web. <>. Pages 15-18