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Development Account Projects

Promoting Rule of Law and Governance in the Criminal Justice System in Liberia

Background:

In its most recent report on human rights, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), found that Liberia's criminal justice system was still facing serious challenges. Many of the actors in the justice system lack the requisite level of education, or there is not sufficient oversight in place by justice institutions to ensure that people have proper guidance in performing their responsibilities. This is certainly the case with regard to criminal defense services in Liberia. The vast majority of criminal defense lawyers in Liberia serve as public defenders, representing indigent clients accused of crimes. Presently, there are fewer than 30 public defenders in the entire country; most are young and lack experience. The criminal justice system in Liberia provides little institutional or material support for defense attorneys: there is almost no infrastructure in place; all operate without support staff and without central coordination; and there is no continuing legal education program provided. Indeed, it is a common occurrence in Liberia that persons detained for petty crimes are held in prison for longer than their possible sentence before they are given access to an attorney and a fair hearing.

A national Legal Working Group met during 2009 to explore key legal issues and concluded that "the effectiveness of the formal justice system is constrained, especially in rural areas, because it is too inaccessible, time consuming, and expensive for most Liberians. It recommended that "the starting point for policies regarding justice reform should be focused on ways to functionally improve the quality of justice for all Liberians."

Liberia utilizes an adversarial criminal system, where a robust and effective criminal defense bar is essential to ensuring a functioning justice system. By protecting the rights of the accused, criminal defense attorneys make certain that the prosecutor's proof is strenuously tested and help courts determine the truth. Effective defense attorneys help the justice system avoid mistakes, such as wrongful convictions and overly harsh or reactionary punishments. In this way, a trained criminal defense bar is critical to due process and the rule of law, as well as to building the public's trust in the criminal justice system. The current project aims at improving the quality of the services provided by defense attorneys in Liberia in a cost-efficient and sustainable manner, in line with relevant international standards and norms.

The proposed project would build on the initial efforts to address the serious deficiencies detailed above by supporting and providing criminal defense attorneys in Liberia with ongoing training, further building the network among criminal defense lawyers in Liberia, developing a criminal defense attorney handbook for the Liberia, and increasing and coordinating the nongovernmental and governmental support and resources available to criminal defense attorneys. This will foster the continued development of a robust criminal defense bar in Liberia, which, as noted above, is essential to minimize the risk of wrongful conviction, unjustified detention and excessive sentences.

The project will have a durable, self-sustaining effect, as it will build the capacities of the national defense attorneys and provide them with tools to continue the training and acquire local expertise as well as develop a professional pride in their work. It builds on existing human resources in the country, while providing the attorneys who currently work in isolation with opportunities to meet, decide on nation-wide policies, share precedents and experiences. It will expose them to international actors in this field and to the relevant international standards and norms. As most interventions in the country focus on other actors in the criminal justice system (i.e. police, prison, judiciary), as well as on promoting assistance by non-lawyers, this project will complement these interventions and ensure that improvement in the flow of cases through the criminal justice system achieved by other means will be met by competent legal representation of accused. The project's uniqueness is found in its simplicity – by transferring advanced know-how from a similar legal system, local expertise can be developed and maintained. In addition, the project will aim to build on regional best practices and experiences, for example by involving trainers from another African country with a similar justice system.

Objective:

To improve the availability and quality of justice for the accused in Liberia by building the capacity and infrastructure of the defense bar, and by enhancing the coordination and synergy among key actors that support and oversee the courts.

Expected accomplishments:

  • Enhance the skills, knowledge and capacities of the criminal defense bar in Liberia, recognizing that most criminal defense is provided by public defenders for indigent individuals accused of crimes.
  • Improve cooperation and coordination among criminal defense attorneys in Liberia, resulting in development of nation-wide policies and best practices.
  • Increase cooperation and coordination among actors; nongovernmental organizations and governmental entities working to strengthen and oversee the criminal justice system in Liberia to improve the quality and efficiency of criminal justice services.

Implementation status:

In progress