By Ishmael Sallieu Koroma
Delay in court trials greatly affects the dispensation of justice, the judiciary is an arbiter of justice and solace for citizens whose right may have been trampled upon either by the state or private individual. The criminal justice system of any nation is a key drivel to enabling justice and harbouring peace and national cohesion. Without a just and independent judiciary there will be no peace and as a nation that has experienced one of the worst civil wars in the world’s community of nations, lack of trust in the independence of the judiciary and other challenges created a mistrust for citizens not to trust their judicial systems in Sierra Leone.
Among the many factors that fuel the civil conflict in the country was lack of respect for human rights, lack of justice on the part of the judiciary, endemic greed, poverty to name a few. Even with the end of the war in 2002 there remains a huge challenge in the full dispensation of justice, delay in court trials, lack of justice and widespread corruption allegation within the justice sector are yet to be wipe off and still remain a challenge. The causes for delay in court proceedings are limited court structures, in adequate number of judicial officers, absence of jurors, absence of prosecutors to name a few.
The findings in respect of the judiciary are very clear as seen in recommendation N0. 414 of the TRC Report stated that Lawyers and jurists have failed to stand up to the systematic violation of the rights of the people.
“Corruption is rife at all levels of the judiciary. There is little or no meaningful access to the courts for the majority of Sierra Leoneans,’’ TRC Recommendation No 418.
The commission further found that lawyers and judges failed to stood up to state tyranny adding that they failed to give meaningful content to the rule of law (TRC Report 420 pg. Vol 2)
According to the TRC Report in particular, the Commission highlights in its recommendations No. 39 in respect of the independence of the judiciary,the role of parliamentand the holding of free and fair elections in the country.
“The Commission found that, prior to the start of the conflict, government accountability was non-existent. It concluded that democracy and the rule of law were dead. The Commission accordingly makes recommendations to strengthen democracy and institutions of accountability,’’ TRC report recommendation 39.
The instances are many with court trials that has been before the courts some for over ten years or more from land cases, petition cases, human rights cases, criminal and civil matters to name a few. Many believed that as a country we haven’t learn much from the brutal experience we went through as a nation on what causes the war. Rights groups and civil society organisations like the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL), Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) have called on the government to introduce reforms in the judiciary in addition to improving funding to the sector as it is critical to lasting peace as nation that is referred to as a fledgling democracy.
In 2018, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden and Dr. Samura Kamara filed a petition challenging the pronouncement of Julius Maada Bio as President of Sierra Leone, the petition was heard for the first time after almost two years on December 3rd, 2020.
Head of Communications in the Judiciary of Sierra Leone, Elkass Sannoh said on the challenges of the judiciary that they do not have enough judges and Magistrates in every parts of the country adding that as a judiciary they have recently recruited magistrates and judges to help boost speedy trials across the country.
“we recently promoted three appeal courts judges, and recruit seven new judges in the High Court. These judicial officers go to places as far as Karene, Kailahun and other places were there has never been a judge. We want the judiciary to be very much transparent and accountable, now part of this reforms we have created the sexual offences model court to speedily try rape and sexual gender-based violence cases, Industrial and social security of the high court. Including the Anti-corruption division of the High Court,’’ he said.
“For the first time in the history of Sierra Leone, the judiciary has introduced a virtual court system so as to digitalized the judiciary we have got a situation where in when we piloted the virtual court, a judge can sit here and some who is witness living in the US can have the opportunity of giving live witness in a live court session, an inmate can be in the prison can testify in a matter. All this is done in order to enhance expeditious trials because we wanted justice to people’s door step. We are rebranding the judiciary,’’
Head of Police Media, Supt. Brima Kamara said that the delay in the dispensation of justice sometimes happened as a result of the fact that too many files are taken to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions sometimes again so many files are taken to the regional crime officer or to the Legal and Justice department of the Sierra Leone Police.
“The criminal justice has a tripartite arrangement, we have the police who are the frontline, after the police, you talk about the judiciary they interpret the law and then you talk about the correctional service. Everyone has his part to play. For us during investigation we have to do our work very well and if we don’t do it very well, we would not be able to help the judiciary,’’ he said, adding that in the case of land issues, they will have to write the Ministry of Lands which will sometimes takes longer thus they wouldn’t just charge the matter to court if they haven’t done all the things necessary.
For Pa Sorie Sesay he has been battling with the court for almost five years now to get justice for his 16-year- old son who was allegedly murdered in 2016 stating that since the inception of the matter from the Magistrate Court up to the High Court there has been no head way.
“This case has affected me so much that, since the inception of the matter at the magistrate court up to the high court there have been no head way, all the accused that allegedly murdered my 16-year-old son have been granted bail and that has affected has family so much,’’ he said in a tear.
He added that the boy was his only son and since his death things have not been with him anymore and the family hoping that the court will give his late son justice, although the matter has been in court for a while.
“I hope at the end of the matter they will give my son justice, I hope to God thejury will grant my son justice, because some people do not have God in their heart’’
In May 2012, the Sierra Leone Parliament passed the legal aid Act which paved the way for the formation of the Legal Aid Board providing free legal service, advice to poor people through trained and qualified paralegals and using alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to solve disputes which will otherwise goes to the courts and since its inception in 2015 , it has helped thousands of people get justice and saved hundreds of cases been overwhelmed in courts.
“A total of 384, 488 people including foreign national have benefitted from the scheme from its inception in May 2015 to September 2020. There has been a steady increase in the number of beneficiaries over the years as follows: 24, 768 beneficiaries in 2015/2016, 83,053 in 2017, 106, 6555 in 2018, 112, 841 in 2019 and 57, 171 from Jan-September 2020,’’a statement from Legal Aid reads.
Today, Legal Aid Board are in 23 cities and towns across the country and has immensely help in reducing case going to the court and enhancing justice to poor individuals who mostly do not have access to legal representative.
In a joint Press release in 2019, Advoc Aid and Centre and Accountability and Rule of Law called the government to decriminalize petty offences in order to reduce prison overcrowding adding that the laws that relate to petty offences, and the ways in which these laws are enforced, have many human rights and economic implications.
“AdvocAid and the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) today launched a Position Paper calling for petty offences to be decriminalised in order to reduce overcrowding in correctional centres and their disproportionate impact on marginalised people in Sierra Leone.
Petty offences are minor offences for which the punishment is ‘a warning, community service, a low-value fine or short term of imprisonment’ (African Commission on Human People’s Rights). Research conducted by AdvocAid and CARL in 2017, monitoring 718 cases in police stations and courts in several cities, found that 33% of offences were petty offences,’’the rights group the rights group said in a joint statement.
“Delays in the delivery of both criminal and civil justice threaten to cripple the administration of justice in Sierra Leone. The use of judicial time must be maximised,’’ TRC Recommendation No 183.