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Dispute Resolution

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General Dispute Resolution Avenues

Given that 23% of people had been in a local dispute since the end of the war and 26% had experienced domestic violence (see “current Safety Threats and Disputes” above), a series of questions sought to determine how people in Liberia typically resolve their disputes. Respondents were first asked to identify whom they would first contact if they had a dispute (known as a palava in their community), without reference to the type of dispute. The results suggest that most disputes are resolved locally at the community level. Just over half mentioned they would contact a village or town chief (54%), with some mentioning elders (14%), other local leaders (14%) such as community leaders, and sectional or zone chairs in larger towns. Six percent mentioned the police. Respondents were asked to explain their selection, and the most frequent responses were the quality of the expected outcome (25%) and physical proximity (24%). Other factors informing the decision were identified as fairness (14%), trust (13%), and speed of intervention (12%). Very few respondents (less than 1%) named traditional authorities or spiritual leaders (including Zoes, who sometimes have important roles in village life–especially in Poro communities). As key informant interviews in many villages and towns showed, the choice of the first mediator is usually dependent on the level of dispute (disputing neighbors in a mid-sized town would not immediately turn to a regional district commissioner). The very local choices named for this question thus imply that the vast majority of conflicts are of a very local character. [1]

Figure 18: General Dispute Resolution Mechanism

 General Dispute Resolution Mechanism

A more specific series of questions sought to identify dispute resolution methods for particular kinds of disputes. The results show that respondents have markedly different preferences, depending on the dispute. At one end, for domestic disputes, about half said they would resolve the problem within the family (47%), although 36% said they would go to the town or village chief. The town or village chief was the preferred avenue to resolve disputes over money (55%) and theft (45%), and the second preference for land disputes (34%) and harm/injuries (34%). Interestingly, the courts were seen to have an active role in dispute resolution. For money and theft disputes, courts were the second most preferred option (respectively 28% and 33%), and were described as the most appropriate venue to resolve disputes over murder (73%), rape (64%), land (58%), and harm/injuries (46%). The town or village chiefs were rarely seen as appropriate to deal with murder or rape. Although a majority of respondents in almost all counties considered courts as the best place for resolving murder or rape, Greater Monrovia was the administrative area where a majority also stated this for all other dispute categories queried (except family disputes). This suggests that courts have a more significant role in Monrovia compared to the rest of the country, and are at least considered by most respondents there as the ideal way to resolve a potential conflict.

Figure 19: Where to Go to Resolve disputes and Crimes

 Where to Go to Resolve disputes and Crimes

Table 21: Dispute Resolution Mechanisms

Table 21 - Dispute Resolution Mechanisms

Experience of Dispute Resolution

Questions about dispute resolution described above were hypothetical. However, respondents were also asked to share their own experience of disputes during and after the war, and the resolution methods they had chosen. For each of the disputes, respondents were asked whom, if anyone, or what institution they had consulted, and what the outcome had been.

The results confirm the prominent role of village and town chiefs in resolving land-related disputes: 39% of those who had experienced land-grabbing since the war had consulted village or town chiefs to resolve the dispute. Among those who experienced disputes over land boundaries or land inheritance dispute, the proportions were 24% and 32%, respectively. Although respondents had answered to the hypothetical question that courts should resolve disputes over land, their own experiences suggested that courts were seldom used, with just 14% of those who experienced disputes over land boundaries having used the magistrate or circuit court. Inversely, elders, who were seldom mentioned as a resolution mechanism in hypothetical cases, were more frequently mentioned in practice (22% turned to elders among those who experienced land-grabbing since the end of the war).

Personal experiences also suggest very different approaches to dispute resolution for non-land disputes than were given in the hypothetical responses. The respondents reported that they most frequently brought their case to the other party and negotiated directly (38%) or to traditional leaders (16%) and sectional chiefs (14%) for mediation. A number of respondents mentioned other individuals or institutions (34%), including their family.

The results on outcome of disputes experienced show also that land disputes are on average more difficult to resolve. While over four out of five non-land disputes experienced since the war had been resolved (83%), just half the farm land-grabbing cases had been solved (53%), and about two-thirds of land disputes over boundaries or inheritance had been resolved (respectively 64% and 66% of the disputes). In addition, the resolution of land disputes more frequently required some sort of payment compared to non-land issues. However, once resolved, land disputes tended to have a more satifying outcome than non-land disputes.

Table 22: Dispute Resolution Used by Respondents

Table 22 - Dispute Resolution Used by Respondents



[1] Further interviews with town chiefs, elders, and other local authorities indicated that dispute resolution is a large part of their responsibility on a daily level, while few issues are being referred onwards outside their town. The exact choice of whom first to approach (chief, elder, community leader, etc.) was said to depend on their personal relationship with the disputant, but also on the gravity of the matter. Although practice often deviates from the rule, the usual chain of events would suggest that the disputant first approaches the lowest authority available to him or her, e.g., an elder from the village, in order to resolve the dispute. He or she would then talk to the chief elder, who  in case of an unsuccessful mediation, then approaches the community chairman, who then turns to the town chief, who, if the matter still remains unresolved, would be able to promote the issue with higher governmental authorities or courts. The first level of mediation is also dependent on the location of the two disputing parties: If both are from the same town or village, the matter is usually resolved internally. If the matter is between families of different villages or clans, the authorities involved are immediately of the next higher level, such as the clan chief, paramount chief, or even district commissioner. Courts were said to be considered only when the matter is more of a regional character.