Chief Justice Alarms Over Qualification of Magistrates, Others

By C. Winnie Saywah-Jimmy   The Liberian Judiciary might face serious crisis in dispensing justice as cases could be stalled due to ‘ill-prepared and or ill-advised’ amendments recently signed by the National Legislature and subsequently approved as law by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf regarding magisterial courts and jurors in criminal proceedings.

As the Liberian Judiciary stands, over 80 percent of stipendiary magistrates are non-lawyers while a vast majority of those serving as clerks in magistrate courts are not high school graduates neither are they qualified to serve as court clerks under the Civil Service requirements.

However, during the onset of the October Term of Court, 2014 in the Supreme Court, it was announced that amendments have been made to the Judiciary Law and the Criminal Procedure Law. The amendments targeted chapter 4, the jurisdiction of the Debt Court and Chapter 7 relating to the magistrate courts and related, Chapter 17 of the Liberian Code of Laws Revised as well as an Act that amended Title 1 of the Liberia Code of Law Revised, Criminal Procedure, Chapter 22 relating to jurors.

Justice Korkpor said the amendments require substantial capital outlay which was never considered and provided for and since the Judiciary is the end-user or implementer of the said provision adding that when laws are amended as was done in this case; the amended provisions cease to exist immediately.

Chief Justice Korkpor said the amendments though welcomed due to its anticipated impact, they also pose new challenges in the administration of justice because it gives jurisdiction to magistrate courts to hear and decide first, second and third degree misdemeanor cases thereby placing them among courts of records and that appeals from circuit courts shall be heard on appellate review based on the trial records of the magistrate courts.

The head of the Liberian Judiciary explained the amendment to means that only magistrates who are law school graduates should take charge of ‘all’ magistrate courts, effectively preside over cases and admit into evidence relevant records during trial.

He said if the courts of non-records become courts of records given the jurisdiction under the law, clerks in magistrate courts throughout the country should possess qualification such that they will take accurate records that will travel even to the Supreme Court.

The Chief Justice said to give the amendment relevance regarding the extension of the jurisdiction of magistrate courts, lawyers and qualified clerks are required to be employed and provided logistics in all magistrates across the country. “This translates in substantial financial requirement,” Chief Justice Korkpor noted.

He said for the amendment of the jury law, it provides that a central jury office be created and that a jury manager be appointed by the Supreme Court to manage the affairs of all jurors within that circuit jurisdiction including jury selection.

He added that the Judiciary takes on the responsibility to determine the cost if such law should be workable and already US$7, 068, 179 has been earmarked for the entire process while the jury management portion amounts to only US$ 7, 03, 766. 80 which represent 10 percent of the total amount but to date, not a dime has been offered.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Francis Korkpor is calling on all lawyers to attend to their clients’ cases vigorously during this term of court.

Making the call at the opening of the March Term of Court yesterday, Chief Justice Korkpor complained how most lawyers failed to follow the rules of the court which states that both parties shall within five days after of within 15 days after service of the notice of completion of appeal, file their respective briefs.

He said due to this attitude on the part of lawyers, the Supreme Court has derived a strategy to avoid the usual situation of unpreparedness by lawyers when cases are called by notifying some lawyers to have their briefs filed in a number of cases which the court will hear and decide on its own.

“The intent is to pay more attention to current cases in which parties have real interests,” he said noting that even though other cases will be heard and decided upon, priority will be placed on criminal cases and therefore no excuses will be accepted from lawyers who fail to file their briefs when cases are called. See full text of Chief Justice’s address on the opening of the March Term of Court in the INQUIRER newspaper March 11, 2014 edition.