Prioritize access to justice for Liberia's rural population, urges UN Deputy Envoy at Judiciary Forum

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Monrovia, Liberia - Members of the Liberian judiciary have been urged to prioritize access to justice for Liberia's rural population by building more courts and training magistrates in the Counties. The call was made by UN Deputy Envoy, Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu during the closing session of a 4-day Strategic Planning Meeting for key representatives of the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary arms of government that took place from 27-30 October in Accra, Ghana. The meeting concluded with a "Vision Statement" that seeks to create an independent, impartial and competent judiciary that will foster peace, stability and national reconciliation.

"The hard work to transform the Judiciary is only just beginning - a plan is only as good as the will and energy to implement it," cautioned Ms. Mensa-Bonsu, who is also the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG) for Rule of Law. The Accra Vision Statement outlined three broad actions, aimed at systematic training of its work force; the repair of infrastructural facilities and provision of logistical support; and the need to take vigorous actions against ethical transgressions.

DSRSG Mensa-Bonsu told the meeting that although a lot had been done over the past four years, the lack of courts and trained magistrates was hampering the rule of law and frustrating the public at their first point of contact when seeking legal redress. "Attention now needs to focus less on top tiers of the Judiciary and more towards availing more courts in Liberia's rural areas," she said and added that the Vision was indicative of the commitment to reflect on the institution and its future.

Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Mr. Justice Francis S. Korkpor, leader of the delegation, acknowledged the progress made - building and rehabilitating magistrate's courts, and sending circuit judges for training abroad. He pointed out, however, that little had been done to increase access to justice and noted that a recurring request from those in outlying Counties was "the need for the presence of rule of law." He told the forum that some counties, such as Salala District in Bong County, had offered land, where a court could be built, with the citizens pledging to provide the required labour.

Mr. Justice Kabineh Jan'neh, also an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, highlighted a number of challenges, among them the high rate of pre-trial detainees in correctional facilities all over the country, and in particular, at Monrovia Central Prison, where the population of pre-trial detainees stands at ninety percent of all inmates. "Many of those in detention have been awaiting trial for many years," he said. He therefore urged for "reform at the magistrate's court level in order to bring access to justice to the common person."

In a speech read for him, the Minister of Justice affirmed the willingness to cooperate with the judiciary to achieve justice for all in Liberia. Further, the President of the National Bar applauded the judiciary for the initiative and pledged the support of the Bar to reforms that the judiciary would initiate to increase access to justice for everyone in Liberia.

The UNDP Country Director, Mr. Dominic Sam, who, through support from DfID's Security Sector Trust Fund, funded the Planning Meeting, hailed the forum as "an important moment in the history of the judiciary in Liberia." He said that the strategic planning work and the Vision that emerged "is a game-changer that goes to show that reform in the Rule of Law is going on steadily." He assured the forum of UNDP's continued commitment to support Liberia's judiciary sector and said, "The Vision and the Plan would aid in identifying where support is needed from partners."

The meeting brought together approximately 35 members of various levels of the judiciary as well as representatives from the Executive and Legislative branches of the Liberian Government, senior representatives from the Liberia National Bar Association and the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law. On the periphery of the meeting, The Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia, accompanied by the DSRSG, paid a courtesy call on the Chief Justice of Ghana, where they discussed the potential for Ghana's role as a training model for magistrates in Liberia and held a working session with officials of the Judicial Training Institute of Ghana.