MONROVIA, 28 June (IRIN) - Recovering from over a decade of conflict, the administration of justice remains hampered in rural Liberia by a lack of judges and magistrates, while the courts in Monrovia are swamped and cannot clear the backlog.
Many trained lawyers prefer to work in the private sector rather than take on assignments as rural judges battling poor working conditions and meagre salaries, court officials told IRIN.
"Because of the shortage of trained lawyers in the country, and because most of those trained want to work in the private sector, several parts of the country are without judges or magistrates present to preside over the courts," said criminal courts judge James Zota.
"This creates a serious problem for the administration of the rule of law in the interior," he added.
Rural judges often lack even a courtroom to work in, a desk to sit at or basic supplies such as stationery and typewriters.
Salaries for judges and magistrates, while comparable to most senior government officials, are less than US $50 a month - enough to buy two sacks of rice.
Funding for the judiciary is a problem. Only US $1.6 m has been allocated to the judiciary under Liberia's national budget of US $44 m, which runs up to the end of June.
In his latest report on Liberia to the UN Security Council, Secretary General Kofi Annan said capacity constraints hindered efforts by Liberia's newly elected post-conflict government to improve the rule of law.
"The.lack of court buildings in many counties and the dearth of qualified judicial and legal officers remained major impediments to the effective administration of justice. These inadequacies have contributed to the denial of due process and fair trials for many accused persons," Annan said.
Liberia's Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis conceded that the judiciary faces a number of challenges after 14 years of civil war, and weeding out corruption was a government priority.
"The judiciary branch of government is saddled with numerous problems, but a vigorous reform process will be carried out through the appointment of trained judges and magistrates - not the corrupt ones," Lewis said.
Already, the chief justice has sacked 34 rural magistrates for what he called "lack of efficiency on the job".
"The judiciary needs to be cleaned up and public confidence restored in the courts system," Lewis added.
Meanwhile in Monrovia, courts are struggling to shift huge backlogs of cases due to the failure of some government prosecutors to turn up in court.
Sikajepo Wolo, a criminal court judge, said some cases were seriously delayed after government prosecuting teams failed to follow up cases filed in courts. "I even issued orders to them to either come to court or face contempt charges," he said.
Liberian human rights groups blame government prosecutors for the prolonged detention of prisoners - some of who have languished in jail for more than a year without trial.
According to some government prosecutors, there are so many rape cases before the Monrovia courts that special courts need to be set up to clear the backlog. "Sometimes there are delays in trying cases, especially rape, and we agreed that in order to relieve the current courts of huge cases, there is need to create at least a fast-track court to try rape cases," government Chief Prosecutor Tiawon Gongloe said.
Police meanwhile complain criminals are taking advantage of the situation and in Monrovia some neighbourhoods have set up vigilante groups to ward off criminals.
"The courts in this country must be able to speed up cases we sent to them and that is why the criminals are taking advantage of the slowness in the courts to commit more crimes," said Liberia's acting police director, Alfred Karlay.