Liberia’s Criminal Justice Systems: A Basic Comparative Analysis of a Developing Criminal Justice System

By: Ian L. Courts, Esq.

A picture depicting the facade of the Liberian Temple of Justice, aka the Liberian Supreme Court.

Liberia has a unique history, as one of Africa’s oldest democracies, with one of its most established criminal justice systems. Furthermore, Liberia’s political state was formed by former Black Americans in the mid-19th century. Many of these freedmen and women wanted to create a state that provided more freedom and liberty protections for their people. Unfortunately, the ideal state these formerly enslaved persons and descendants of enslaved persons envisioned did not come to reality, and similar structural injustices from America were found in the Liberian state. However, despite its history, Liberia has struggled with fulfilling its de jure ideals and the realities of division, poverty, and corruption in its legal system. This discussion will examine the history of Liberia’s criminal justice system, the mechanics of Liberia’s system, and how effective Liberia’s system is in protecting the public.

As discussed above, the modern political state of Liberia was founded by former enslaved Black Americans and descendants of enslaved Black Americans in 1822.[1] The United States government, primarily through the American Colonization Society and the newly freed Black Americans, worked together to form the structure of Liberia’s government.[2] Liberia’s 1847 Constitution largely mirrored the Constitution of the United States in establishing Liberia’s legal structure. The 1847 Constitution established a unitary state consisting of a powerful central government with three branches, the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary.[3] Moreover, eerily similar to the U.S. Constitution, the 1847 Liberian Constitutes provided a general and largely minimal description of Liberia’s judiciary function.[4] A branch that is entrusted with “all judicial power.”[5] The 1847 Constitution’s Article IV created the Supreme Court of Liberia and its subsequent federal courts; while also establishing the original jurisdiction of its federal courts.[6](“ The Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, or other public ministers and consuls, and those to which a County shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Legislature shall from time to time make.”)[7] The judiciary of Liberia, like the United States, was given the difficult task of interpreting the law of the country while not being given much guidance on how to do it. This dichotomy between ideal and reality continues to reverberate through subsequent Constitutions and Liberian society as a whole.

In this part of our discussion, I will examine the basic characteristics of Liberia’s current legal structure as defined in its 1986 Constitution. The 1986 Constitution of Liberia maintains the unitary state and three-branch governmental structure established in the 1847 Constitution. However, notably, the 1986 Constitution further defines the role of the Judiciary and, more importantly, outlines the criminal justice process and the rights afforded defendants in a trial. Notably, Article 73 provides judicial immunity for judicial officers when functioning in their judicial role.[8]

Liberia’s current legal system is primarily a common law jurisdiction within the American legal tradition yet with a comprehensive modern legal code.[9] Liberia follows a burgeoning common law legal tradition adopted from the American legal tradition. I use the term “burgeoning” because Liberia is still developing its legal traditions today, and its judiciary is trying to assert greater normality and acceptance among its people. Liberia’s court system is quite developed in its functions and administrative hierarchy, and similar to the United States, Liberia has a Supreme Court that determines constitutional questions and lower appellate and specialty courts.[10] However, Liberia’s courts are limited in their impact and ability to enforce their rulings against the powerful executive and legislative branches. Despite the Supreme Court of Liberia’s limited power, there has been a significant recent push to provide more public support for the Court and a greater emphasis on the court’s legitimacy.[11]

However, Liberia has serious corruption issues and a lack of investment in its criminal justice system. According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, Liberia scores below average on investigations, the effectiveness of its correctional system, and anti-corruption.[12] These are concerning stats because, under a “common law” tradition, great importance is placed on the court system’s ability to exude legitimacy and protect individual rights.[13] As is evidenced, the customs of Liberia’s common law tradition have further societal tensions instead of curtailing criminality. Overall, Liberia’s legal system, despite having documents that purport to support individual rights, the implementation of those documents and ideals has been less than stellar. According to the World Justice Project, Liberia’s overall criminal justice factor score is .31, a low average but comparable to the countries around it in West Africa. This can be ascribed to Liberia’s suffering two civil wars within the last 30 years, grappling with rebuilding despite widespread poverty, and a global system that is generally dismissive of Africa. One can credibly argue that Liberia is an example of a “failed state in the U.S.” However, Liberians are working to change that.

Liberia’s Judiciary consists of One Supreme Court, Eighteen Circuit Courts, magisterial district courts, and several specialty courts.[14] Each of Liberia’s courts serve a particular purpose and are important to judicial administration within the state.

The Supreme Court of Liberia consists of one Chief Justice and Four Associate Justices. Each of the justices are appointed by the President of Liberia and confirmed by the Liberian Senate.[15] Similar to the United States Supreme Court, each of the Liberian Supreme Court Justices serves for a term of good behavior.[16] The Supreme Court of Liberia is the chief judicial organ of the Liberian government and is vested with the power to interpret the Constitution and clarify what the law is within the country.[17] The Supreme Court of Liberia also hears appeals from courts of record and non-record within the country.[18]For much of Liberia’s history, the judiciary has struggled to assert its influence, and its legitimacy and independence have been questioned. However, within the last decade, the Supreme Court of Liberia has tried to assert its influence by holding political officials accountable for attacks on the judiciary.[19]

Liberia’s Circuit Courts are granted original jurisdiction to hear all criminal cases within the state of Liberia, and its decisions are only overturned by the Supreme Court of Liberia.[20] Similar to United States Circuit Courts, Judges on the Circuit Courts of Liberia are appointed by the President of Liberia and confirmed by the Senate, and they also serve for good behavior.[21] Liberia’s Magisterial Courts handle a large volume of nonjury matters, and most of the cases decided in Liberian courts are resolved at the magisterial courts.[22] Interestingly, Liberia has several specialty courts such as its family, commercial, probate, traffic, and tax courts.[23] Furthermore, Liberia has a National Labor Court which handles all claims related to labor violations under the country’s labor and employment laws. Recently, the National Labor Court upheld a $35,000 dismissal case for an employee who was wrongfully let go by one of the country’s largest employers.[24] All of Liberia’s judges, from the Supreme Court to the lower courts, must retire by age 70. [25]

The Courts of Liberia are robust; however, they are not the only judicial actors; the Liberian Ministry of Justice is also a prominent actor in the administration of justice. The Ministry of Justice handles all the criminal cases within the state of Liberia, working closely with the Liberian National Police and the Courts.[26] The Ministry of Justice is composed of several divisions, where the country’s prosecutors and investigations handle a multitude of cases. The divisions of the Ministry of Justice consist of the Administrative and Public Safety Division, which handles significant public importance and public safety issues, including sexual abuse, alternative dispute resolution, Child Justice, and Human Resources.[27]

Additionally, the Ministry of Justice consists of the prosecution division, which handles all criminal prosecutions within Liberia.[28] Additionally, this unit enforces Liberian tax law and civil law penalties. The prosecution division is the largest division in the country and the one most people encounter. The next division in the Ministry of Justice is the Codification Unit, which serves as a sort of general counsel to the Liberian Executive, advising on international law, government concessionaires, preparing responses to Supreme Court judicial opinions, and codifying Liberian law.[29] The last division in the Minority of Justice is the Economic Affairs: handles Liberian maritime and economic cases where the state of Liberia is a party. [30]

The Ministry of Justice is arguably the country’s most powerful judicial administration component, second only to the Liberian National Police. In recent months the Liberian Ministry of Justice has investigated rape allegations against powerful ambassadors.[31] The Ministry of Justice in recent years has been exercising greater authority in combating crime and other administrative and legal violations within the country. However, significant progress is needed for the administration of justice to improve criminal justice outcomes and ensure credibility among the Liberian people.

Police Force and Accountability

The arguably most powerful justice actor within Liberia is the Liberian National Police. Liberia has a centralized police force, and police power is centralized in the Liberian National Police force (LNP). The LNP is the largest law enforcement body in the country, larger even than the Liberian military.[32] Liberia’s police force fits within the centralized policing framework because law enforcement authority is centered in the LNP and has been recently the main law enforcement authority.[33] The Liberian National Police has been riddled with issues, including corruption and abuse. The Liberian Government has tried to find ways to diffuse the LNP’s power and increase its accountability and effectiveness. In 1978 the Liberian government passed the Penal Code, which limited the police use of deadly force.[34] The 1978 Penal Code prescribed a four-part test for police officers when determining to use force, such as (a) for a felony; and (b) the officer using the force is authorized to act as an LNP officer; © the use of force poses no substantial risk of injury to innocent persons; and (d) the officer believes the crime which the arrest is being conducted is one where deadly violence was alleged to have been used, or the accused could potentially use.[35] However, despite the 1978 use of force test, the LNP’s officers routinely used unnecessary force. Thus, the 1986 Liberian Constitution made it unlawful for police officers to torture or provide inhumane treatment to persons arrested.[36] The 2016 Policing Act established a Civilian Review Board of police misconduct. The board has the authority to investigate police misconduct allegations and recommend sanctions and criminal charges to the public prosecutor.[37] Moreover, community organizations and laypersons such as Dignity Publications have called for the government to adopt several recommendations to reform the LNP, such as greater public involvement in the selection of police commissioners, an increase in the successful prosecution and conviction of police officers accused of misconduct, and the creation of the Office of Ombudsman that allows for civilian oversight over the LNP.[38] However, despite the several pieces of legislation the government of Liberia has passed to curb police violence, the reality in Liberia is quite different, and there is routine corruption in Liberia’s police force.[39]

As discussed above, Liberia’s governmental system is largely adapted from the United States, and the political state of Liberia was formed by African American immigrants from the U.S. to Liberia in the 19th Century who formed the Liberian government. In examining the textbook, Liberia’s criminal procedural system is more of an adversarial system because it requires that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty, both parties present evidence in court, and the court via jury or judge determines guilt or innocence.[40]

Every person accused of a crime in Liberia is presumed innocent until proven guilty.[41] The presumption of innocence given to all those accused derives from the similar presumption in the United States given to criminal defendants. However, in both countries, all those given the presumption of innocence are not always treated that way. Additionally, Liberia requires that when a person is arrested, police inform them of the following rights:

(a)The nature of the offense of which he is accused or suspected;

(b)That he has the right to have legal counsel present at all times while he is being questioned or is making any statement or admission;

©That he does not have to make any statement or admission regarding the offense of which he is accused or suspected;

(d)That any statement or admission made by him may be used as evidence against him in a criminal prosecution

See Liberian Criminal Code Section 2.3. The litany of rights an arrested person must be informed of by an arresting officer is similar to the Miranda v. Arizona rights arrestees have in the United States.[42] Liberia’s adoption of similar rights further highlights the influence of the American legal tradition on the republic of Liberia. Additionally, Liberia provides the right for the accused to be able to exert their “privileges” under the Constitution and the Criminal Code, and that the exercise of that privilege cannot be used against them at any stage of the proceedings.[43]

During the adversarial proceedings and in the investigation phase before it, the accused has a right to the assistance of counsel, and if they are economically disadvantaged, the state will appoint counsel for the accused.[44]Again, Liberia’s counsel protections for accused persons mirror those in the United States. Furthermore, every person accused of a felony in the state of Liberia is entitled to an adversarial proceeding via a jury trial.[45] The standard of review for Liberian adversarial proceedings is “harmless error,” meaning a conviction will only be overturned for the most serious of trial violations by a party or the court.[46] Moreover, during the adversarial proceeding, whether by jury trial or a bench trial (judge as the trier of fact), the accused is entitled to present their case, the prosecution is afforded the same privilege, and an impartial arbiter makes the final decision of guilt or innocence.[47] Furthermore, if the prosecution does not bring its case in a timely manner, the trial courts in Liberia may sua spontae — on their own, dismiss the prosecution’s case.[48] This provision safeguards the accused right to a speedy trial and creates a hurdle for the delay and obstructive tactics of the Ministry of Justice. As is evidenced, Liberia provides the accused with the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial by jury or judge. However, many Liberians experience injustice and flat-out denial of those rights during criminal proceedings despite these protections.[49]

Layperson participation in Liberia is codified in its Constitution, namely the provisions that require that the right to a trial by jury is there for accused persons.[50] Jurors are selected, and trained by the Office of Jury Management, a subdivision of Liberia’s Supreme Court. The Office of Jury Management oversees the selection of jurors, education, and assigning jurors to the Circuit Cout (trial courts) of Liberia.[51] Moreover, the Office treats jurors as an independent component of the judicial process apart from judges and counsel. Liberia’s jury selection process removes counsel from being the main selector of jurors and significant investment independence in civilians in the selection and training of jurors.[52] Now, counsel does have the right to object to certain jurors, which the circuit judge will review, and another recommendation made by the Office of Jury Management.[53] However, the discretion of jury selection rests with the Office of Jury Management and the Courts of Liberia.

Liberia’s trial system relies on several actors, independent judges and prosecutors, defense counsel, police, and laypersons. Our discussion shows the American heritage and influence on many of Liberia’s adjudicatory criminal justice functions.

The American and Liberian criminal justice systems are similar in that they share a common law tradition, with a robust legal code while also ensuring that accused persons are protected under the law and have access to counsel. There is not much that Liberia has that America does not in terms of its criminal justice system because Liberia’s system was largely based upon the United State’s system. However, the use of an independent Jury Management Office that is tasked with the selection, education, and assignment of jurors to courts; could be beneficial in America by removing the responsibility for jury selection from the Clerk of Court to an independent office. Moreover, the Office of Jury Management could potentially decrease the social marginalization of jury selection in America while bringing in greater diversity. All of this is conjecture and likely depends on how the Office of Jury Management would be created and selected in America. Yet, similarly to Liberia, in America, the Office of Jury Management should fall under the purview of the Circuit Courts in the federal system and State Supreme Courts in state systems.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this discussion was to highlight the similarities between the United States and Liberia’s criminal justice systems while demonstrating Liberia’s uniqueness. Additionally, I wanted to show the areas where the Liberian criminal justice system needs reforming and restructuring. Liberia, as one of Africa’s oldest democracies, has long not been a paragon of liberty nor a positive example of democracy; however, the republic has an opportunity during this relative peace to move the country in a more fair and just way direction. Ensuring the independence of its judiciary and Ministry of Justice while holding the Liberian National Police force and corrupt politicians accountable will be the key to ushering in a new democratic age in Liberia.

[1] See Clegg A. Claude (2004). The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, The University of North Carolina Press

[2] Wilkeson, S. (1839). Concise History of the Commencement, Progress and Present Condition of the American Colonies in Liberia. Washington, Printed at the Madisonian Office.

[3] See generally Liberia’s 1847 Constitution. Webaccess: https://web.archive.org/web/20100117084908/http://onliberia.org/con_1847_orig.htm

[4] Id at Article IV.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id at Section 2.

[8] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII, Articles 73. (“No judicial official shall be summoned, arrested, detained, prosecuted or tried civilly or criminally by or at the instance of any person or authority on account of judicial opinions rendered or expressed, judicial statements made and judicial acts done in the course of a trial in open court or in chambers, except for treason or other felonies, misdemeanor or breach of the peace. Statements made and acts done by such officials in the course of a judicial proceeding shall be privileged, and, subject to the above qualification, no such statement made or acts done shall be admissible into evidence against them at any trial or proceeding.”)

[9] See Reichel, Philip. Comparative Criminal Justice Systems “A Topical Approach,” Pearson Seventh Edition.

[10] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII, Articles 65–66.

[11] See “Increasing Confidence in Liberian Judiciary: A Shift in the Dispensation of Justice,” Oregon International Law Review Vol. 21, 155–56.

[12] See Liberia, World Justice Project, 2020. Webaccess: https://worldjusticeproject.org/rule-of-law-index/country/2020/Liberia/Criminal%20Justice

[13] See Reichel, Phillip. supra

[14] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII. See also webaccess: https://judiciary.gov.lr/brief-overview/

[15] Id at Article 68.

[16] Id.

[17] Id at Article 65.

[18] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII, Articles 65–66. See also web access: https://judiciary.gov.lr/brief-overview/

[19] Dodoo, Lennart. (2021). Liberia: Supreme Court Condemns Attacks on Judiciary Officials. Front Page Africa. Web access: https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/liberia-supreme-court-condemns-attacks-on-judiciary-officials/

[20] See Brief Overview of the Liberian Judiciary web access: https://judiciary.gov.lr/brief-overview/

[21] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII, Articles 72 (b)

[22] See Brief Overview of the Liberian Judiciary web access: https://judiciary.gov.lr/brief-overview/

[23] Id.

[24] Contributing Writer (2021). National Labor Court Upholds US$35K Wrongful Dismissal Case Against Arcelor Mittal, Front Page Africa. Web access: https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/national-labor-court-upholds-us35k-wrongful-dismissal-case-against-arcelor-mittal/

[25] See 1986 Liberian Constitution Chapter VII, Article 72(b).

[26] See Liberian Ministry of Justice website. Web access: http://moj.gov.lr/

[27] Id at Departments, Administrative Division. Web access: http://moj.gov.lr/departments/administration/

[28] Id at Departments, Prosecution Division. Web access: http://moj.gov.lr/departments/prosecution/

[29] Id at Departments, Codification Division. Web access: http://moj.gov.lr/departments/laws/

[30] Id at Departments, Economic Affairs Division. Web access: http://moj.gov.lr/departments/economic/

[31] Genoway Jr., Edwin (2021). Liberian Embassy Reportedly Covering Up Alleged Rape at Embassy Compound; Staff Children Involved, Front Page Africa. Web access: https://frontpageafricaonline.com/front-slider/liberia-liberian-embassy-reportedly-covering-up-alleged-rape-at-embassy-compound-staff-children-involved/

[32] See No Money, No justice-Liberia and Policing (https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/08/22/no-money-no-justice/police-corruption-and-abuse-liberia# (Links to an external site.)).

[33] See Reichel P. Comparative Criminal Justice Systems: A Topical Approach. Pearson, pg. 146–148.

[34] See 1978 Liberian Penal Code.

[35] Id.

[36] See Article 21 of the Liberian Constitution. (“charged, arrested, restricted, detained or otherwise held in confinement shall be subject to torture or inhumane treatment…. The Legislature shall make it a criminal offense and provide for appropriate penalties against any police or security officer, prosecutor, administrator or any other public or security officer, prosecutor, administrator or any other public official acting in contravention of this provision; and any person so damaged by the conduct of any such public official shall have a civil remedy therefore, exclusive of any criminal penalties imposed.”)

[37] See S. 22.85(c), 2016 Police Act.

[38] See Larsen K.; Prud’Homme J.; Jensen S.; Swaray S.; Allen Russell N. (2018) Policing in Liberia: A study of the frameworks and practices of fair trial, corruption and civilian oversight; Dignity Publication Series on Torture and Organized Violence.

[39] Johnson Obediah (2021). Liberian Police ‘Kills’ Two Commuters, One ‘Zogoe’ in Duala Raid. Front Page Africa.

[40] See Reichel, P. Comparative Criminal Justice Systems: A Topical Approach, 125.

[41] See Section 2.1 of the Liberian Criminal Code.

[42] See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602 L.Ed. 2d 694 (1966) The U.S. Supreme Court held that certain rights such as the right to remain silent, and anything an individual says to police can and will be used against them in a court of law, the right to an attorney, or not to be represented, etc. must be relayed to arrestees by police at the time of the arrest.

[43] See Liberian Criminal Code Section 2.6

[44] See Liberian Criminal Code Section 2.2 (“the accused has the right to counsel at every stage of the proceedings.” See also See Liberian Criminal Code Section 2.2 subsection 4. (“f the accused cannot acquire counsel of choice due to financial reasons, counsel can be appointed for him.”)

[45] See Liberian Criminal Code Section 20.1 (“The accused has a right to a trial by jury in all cases except petty larceny and other petty offenses.”)

[46] See Section 1.3 of the Liberian Criminal Code. Liberia’s Criminal Procedural Code applies a statutory harmless error standard to errors made during that criminal procedural process, except those that violate the accused’s substantial rights.

[47] See Liberian Criminal Code Section 20.4. (“”After the jury is selected and sworn and before any witnesses are called, the prosecution shall be entitled to make an opening statement to the jury, followed by introduction of evidence for the Republic. The defendant may then make an opening statement and present his evidence, including his rebutting testimony. The prosecution is then entitled to introduce its rebutting testimony. At the close of all the evidence, the prosecution may make an opening argument, after which the defendant may offer his argument in reply. The prosecution may then have an opportunity to present the closing argument for the republic.”)

[48] See Liberian Criminal Code Section 20.4

[49] See 2021 World Justice Project “Liberia” Liberia fell four points in their rule of law score. Moreover, it ranked in 110 out of 139 in the global rule of law index. Rampant corruption was cited as one of the major areas of concern by the populace.

[50] See Article 20(a) of the Liberian Constitution. (“all persons at risk of having their “ life, liberty, security of the person, property, privilege” deprived are entitled to a trial by jury.”)

[51] Judiciary of Liberia’s website-Jury Management. Web access: https://judiciary.gov.lr/jury-management/

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

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Ian Courts

Ian Courts

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Attorney, Young Black Voice, Law & Politics Observer. HBCU Law Alumnus, and Fur dad!