Training Community Justice Teams in Liberia

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Citizens Bureau for Development and Productivity, Liberia

In a country where most people cannot afford to settle disputes through the formal justice system, my organization the Community Justice Teams (CJTs) offers informal dispute resolution for communities so they can peacefully resolve conflicts. In addition to providing these services, we are also training a select group of community residents in conflict mediation and the use of Alternative Disputes Resolution (ADR) methods.

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These community leaders who are trained in ADR fill critical gaps given the questions of legitimacy and affordability created as a result of major challenges confronting the formal justice system in Liberia. When citizens are aggrieved and confronted with legal challenges, they are often deprived of justice given the extensive bureaucratic red tape and unseen additional costs including transportation. Too often, legal fees and opportunity costs of foregone work make Liberia’s current justice system both physically and financially inaccessible to many.

KammaUpdate04On sensitization and awareness creation across the 4 CJT centers, beginning July 19 to August 2, 2021, we called on community dwellers to use the mediators than resort to violence. We interacted with the public through mass media to encourage the path of nonviolence to conflict resolution, connecting with callers across the counties and the communities. Visiting CJT project beneficiaries further informed the sustainability of the project, as gathered from the 8 beneficiaries we visited across the centers; 7 female and 1 male. They had different types of conflicts, yet, their experienced with the CJT remained the same, ‘no instance of recidivism’. West Point and Logan Town in Montserrado County; Bassa Community in Kakata, Margibi County and Kokoya/Demeta Road in Gbarnga, Bong County are low income communities, where we have the CJT, with residents from across all of Liberia’s 16 tribes, with no adequate spaces for the resolution of disputes to take place, in such a diverse setting.

The 8 beneficiaries visited across the 4 CJT locations, underscored the importance of the CJT intervention, as contained in their responses to 6 sample survey questionnaire as shown below:

  1. How did you hear about the CJT? Radio 3; Community Meeting 2; Town crier 1; Friend 2;
  2. For what did you seek help? Family Disputes 6; Debt 1; Disorderly Conduct 1;
  3. Is the situation still happening? No 8; Yes 0;
  4. Will you recommend others to use CJT for conflicts resolution? No 0; Yes 8;
  5. Without CJT how would you have handle the situation? Through the Community leaders 4; The Police 3; Do not know where to go 1;
  6. The next time you experienced conflict with a neighbor, would you use the CJT? No 0; Yes 8;

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Of most important is use of the program which demonstrate trust and satisfactions given the responses according to percentages. Is the situation still happening? 100% said no. Will you recommend others to use the CJT for conflicts resolution? 100% said yes. The next time you experienced conflict with a neighbor, would you use the CJT? 100% said yes. For what did you seek help? 75% said Family disputes; 12.5% said, Action of Debt; 12.5% said, Disorderly Conduct. Without the CJT, how would you have handle the situation? 50% said through community leaders; 37.5% said, through the police; 12.7% do not know where to go to.

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Beatrice, a children mother told her experienced about misunderstanding between her and a neighbor over drawing water from the well, and resulted to law suit against her at the West Point Magisterial Court. While at the court she heard about the mediators at her disposal. She identified the issue with the mediators. They met the court officials and the matter turned over for the mediators to resolve. She wondered, how would she have handled the situation along? “It was about sending me to prison without the bond fee to pay, I could not afford it,” she said.

Korto, from Gbarnga said, “Even if you went to the police or the court, they can’t solve it the way CJT does, you want people counsel and police or court apply the law, put people in jail.”

KammaUpdate05My organization, Citizens’ Bureau for Development and Productivity (CBDP) a nongovernmental, nonpolitical and not for profit Civil Society Organization, developed in 2009 from the restructuring and reforming of the New Liberia National Police (LNP), has been working with the CJTs in Logan Town and West Point helping solve disputes, given the frequent occurrences of disputes in low income communities. Because people will continue to live together in their communities, they are able to reach a quick resolution to their problems, in that way CJT helps to reduce the number of cases that are normally reported to the police and the courts, as the formal justice system remained inaccessible, unaffordable with bureaucratic bottlenecks for an ordinary citizen, and, there is simply no justice for the poor as declared by Liberians whilst researching this project.

CJTs understand, not all cases will be resolved through ADR processes. Equally important, they do not downplay any complaint, providing a timely determination of disputes as opposed to the bureaucracy associated with the assignment of cases in the formal court system. As such, it takes careful evaluation of complaints and cases to ensure that they derived from a misunderstanding in the community. Some cases that are not adjudicated at the CJT mediation center are to be referred to the courts for proper disposal include rape, aggravated or physical assault and violation of constitutional and human rights. Because mediators live in the communities and understand the particular realities of the people and how the parties feel about their problems, through follow up visits, make them effective. By doing so, the mediators listen to the parties as they may never have been listened to before. The mediators’ approach create changes in parties’ original positions, helping the parties generate new ideas, empowering people to solve their problems.

The Citizens Bureau with the Accountability Lab, mediators received training, mentoring and financing support, where a component of the CJT was scaled up in 2018 in two additional communities, Bassa community in Kakata Margibi County and Kokoya/Demetae Road in Gbarnga Bong County, with financial support from UNDP and partners including the Swedish embassy and the Irish-Aid in Monrovia Liberia. The mediators as of this period recorded and resolved over 700 disputes and 80 this year. Cases ranging from family disputes, debt, petty theft, rent payment, child support, fighting, among others.

Since 2014, the mediators have resolved at least 1665 disputes from land conflicts and the action of debt. We estimate that by pursuing a civil case with in the formal justice system in Liberia requires bribes and legal fees totaling around US$300, which is equivalent to the average annual rent for the parties involved in these types of disputes. We estimate a minimum of 3 days to pursue a case through formal justice system, police and court combined. Party litigants have no option but to comply thus losing otherwise productive time. In total, time save through this project amounts to 4995 days or 14 years. The project has saved time, money and energy for those involved with the disputes, all of which could have been used to earn money and build community relations.

Despite the disruption of Covid 19 and the lack of funding toward CJTs’ project, we are glad the mediators residing in the communities named above, cumulatively resolved 80 disputes, civil and misdemeanor as of 2021. During follow up visits this July in the communities, we created mass media awareness through the use of electronic and print, allowing the opportunity to interact with Liberians across the counties and the country at large through interactive radio talk show programs with calls for the expansion of the program to bring fairness amongst residents in disadvantaged communities. We also visited some beneficiaries of the program across all 4 communities who expressed so much good the program has brought to them. All our beneficiaries had similar experienced with no instance of recidivism following the resolution of their conflicts, as shown in the sample survey of 8 beneficiaries across the four project locations.

All these efforts, given the lack of funding support was administered by the mediators collaborating with the formal justice actors including, magisterial court/judge, Police, township commissioners and community leaders. By building relationship with actors of the formal justice system and community leaders, they shared the head mediators’ contacts as hotlines to parties who may want to opt out of the formal court for resolution of their disputes or who case could be resolved using the ADR approach. The mediators, also work with community chairpersons, as they understand the role of the mediators, allowing them to preside over cases brought to their attention at the homes of community leaders. In other instances, the mediators received calls from the Police, magistrate judges and community leaders for the resolution of disputes. Despite the lack of offices across all 4 CJTs’ locations, due to gap in funding support, with this effort demonstrated by the communities and supporters to sustain the CJT, I’m confident, financial empowerment to pay for rented spaces where communities’ members can walk into and register their complaints, with minimum financial compensation to mediators for their time, will to a great deal improve service delivery, and through awareness creation, surveys, town hall meetings will underpin the formal justice system, as people refrain from violence to using, knowing and shaping the law to address grievances especially in low income communities where disputes are frequent and residents cannot afford the formal justice system.

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