Liberia

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LEGAL RESOURCES

LEGAL TRAINING RESOURCE CENTER

Background

Liberia is a country on the west coast of Africa. Former African-American Slaves created and colonized Liberia in 1821. In 1980, Samuel Doe lead a successful military coup. Doe remained in power until 1989 when the first of Liberia’s two, post-coup, civil wars resulted in his removal from power. The country struggles to rebuild itself. Liberia currently has a dual system of statutory law based on Anglo-American common law for the modern sector and customary law based on unwritten tribal practices for the indigenous sector. However, despite laws being set out in the Liberian Constitution, there is a gap between these laws and their implementation. Liberia also accepts compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction with reservations.

Type of System

The Constitution and laws provide for an independent judiciary, however, the judicial system is corrupt and largely nonfunctional. Judges are subject to political, social, familial, and financial pressures. By law, magistrates must be lawyers, but most are not. Judges sometimes request bribes to try cases, release detainees from prison, or find defendants not guilty in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggest that defendants pay a gratuity to appease or secure favorable rulings from judges, prosecutors, jurors and police officers.

Furthermore, the juvenile justice system requires reform. Although there is a statutory mandate for the creation of a juvenile court in each of counties of the republic and lesser geographic units, only the county of Montserrado has a fully constituted juvenile court. The magisterial courts in other geographic areas are mandated to assume juvenile court jurisdiction whenever it becomes necessary. Juvenile detainees are also not always kept separate when detained.

Defendants' Rights

Pre-Trial

In Article 21.f, the constitution requires warrants to make arrests and provides that detainees either be charged or released within 48 hours; however, warrants are not always based on sufficient evidence, and detainees are often held for more than 48 hours without charge, especially if they do not have the means to hire a lawyer. The law provides for bail for all offenses except rape, murder, armed robbery and treason.

Trial

Under the constitution, defendants have the right to be present at their trial, to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, and to have access to the government’s evidence relevant to their case. These rights, however, are not always observed. Defendants also enjoy a presumption of innocence and have the right to confront or question witnesses against them, present evidence and witnesses on their behalf, and to appeal adverse decisions. Many of these rights, however, are unavailable to defendants who cannot pay bribes or afford an attorney.

Article 21.e prohibits torture and inhumane treatment of the accused and detained. However, some rural areas still practice trial by ordeal. Investigations are conducted but no actions are taken against those involved in human rights abuses.

Legal Aid System

While Article 21.i of the Constitution states that legal aid should be provided when required and some legal aid is in fact available, there is no effective system to provide public defenders in rural and remote areas. However, government officials have worked with international aid agencies to set up functional public defenders, raising the national total to approximately 17 qualified prosecutors and 13 public defenders.

Post-Conviction

An estimated 85% of prisoners are pre-trial detainees, on average 600 of whom are released within the year as a result of the Fast Track Court to reduce prison overcrowding. However, with the incarceration of new detainees, prisons remain overcrowded. In some cases, the length of pre-trial detention exceeds the maximum length of sentence that could be imposed for the crime.


See Criminal Justice Systems Around the World

QUICK FACTS

  • Rule of law (World Bank Rule of Law Index rating): 14.2% in 2009 (indicates rank of country among all countries in the world).
  • Number of prisons: 15 (2009 - the largest is Monrovia Central Prison). Official prison capacity: 750 (August 2007 - the capacity of Monrovia Central Prison is 180).
  • Total prison population: 1,600 at July 2009 (U.N. Mission in Liberia - UNMIL). 97.3% (August 2007) are pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners.
  • Occupancy level based on official capacity: 136.3% (August 2007 - the occupancy level in Monrovia Central Prison was 316.1% on 12.2.2007 when the prison held 569 prisoners).
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