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The Court System

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The results on the resolution of hypothetical disputes suggest that the population of Liberia is familiar with the court system. A majority mentioned courts to address cases of murder, rape, land disputes, and injuries. However, in practice only a minority of respondents sought to resolve disputes in the courts. Of the land-grabbing cases since the end of the war, only 9% and 4% were taken to magistrate and circuit courts, respectively, compared to 39% brought to village chiefs, 22% to elders, and 23% to no one.

Several questions were designed to examine further community access to and perceptions of the formal court system. Most respondents recognized having no (50%) or little (41%) knowledge of the formal court system.

Figure 20: Knowledge of court system

 Knowledge of court system

Table 23: Knowledge and Access to Courts

Table 23 - Knowledge and Access to Courts

Just 28% described their access to the court system as easy, while 45% described it as not easy, and 16% said it was not easy at all. Consistent with these figures, just 63% of the population indicated knowing where to access the courts, while 53% declared knowing how to do so. In contrast, a majority of the population knew how to access their village or town chief courts and dispute resolution mechanisms: over 80% knew where and how to access these systems, and 78% reported access as easy. Interestingly, perceptions of access did not differ greatly across counties. In particular, respondents in the urban setting of Greater Monrovia did not report significantly better knowledge of or access to the formal court system than other respondents, although a majority named courts as the best place to resolve almost all hypothetical kinds of conflict (see “General Dispute Resolution Avenues” above).

Figure 21: Access to formal court system and chiefs’court

 Access to formal court system and chiefs’court

Table 24: Knowledge and Perception of the Court System

Table 24 - Knowledge and Perception of the Court System

Despite limited knowledge of the formal court system among many Liberians, respondents showed a good knowledge of the law. The survey asked the selected adult Liberians a series of questions about Liberian law. Most respondents stated correctly that under Liberian law a woman has the right to become owner of her husband’s or family member’s properties after his death (87%), that a man must support his out of wedlock child (88%), that forcing one’s wife to have sex is a form of rape (84%), and that domestic violence against one’s wife is a crime (83%). Inversely, only a minority stated, incorrectly, that Liberian law supports trial through sassywood (14%),[1] or that a payment is needed to bring a case to the police (16%) or to the formal court (20%).[2]

A similar series of propositions was used to assess Liberians’ perceptions of the formal court system. Overall, the results reveal that perceptions are quite negative. Most agreed with the claim that “going to court is too expensive” (75%), and just a minority agreed that “judgments are the same for everyone” (23%), or that “judges treat everyone equally” (28%). The results suggest an overall lack of trust in judges, and more broadly in the justice system. On average, knowledge and perception of the court system showed little difference across counties.

Figure 22 : Knowledge and Perception of Justice and Rule of Law

 Knowledge and Perception of Justice and Rule of Law

[1] The term “sassywood” is used to describe a “trial by ordeal” process to settle cases of theft of property, death or witchcraft/sorcery. The methods include having the alleged perpetrator drink a mixture or brew made from indigenous plants, which, if regurgitated, shows innocence, or putting the alleged perpetrator in contact with red hot metal, with a burn or retraction indicating guilt. See Ezekiel Pajibo, Traditional Justice Mechanisms: The Liberian Case, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,- IIDEA(2008).

[2] Although most respondents know that paying to file a complaint to the police is not appropriate, over half of those who had such a case did pay. See “Access to and Contact with the Police.”