BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE LIBERIAN JUDICIARY
The form of government in Liberia, as set forth in Article 3 of the Liberian Constitution (1986), is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: The Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary. This same article of the Liberian Constitution also dictates that “consistent with the principles of Separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this constitution……”.
Chapter VII (Articles 65 to 75) of the Liberian Constitution then clearly outlines the powers and functions of the Judiciary Branch of the Liberian Government vesting the judicial power of the Republic in the Supreme Court and such subordinate courts as the Legislature may from time to time establish. Pursuant to this authority, the following subordinate Courts are established in addition to the Supreme Court.
- Criminal and Assizes Courts
- The Circuit Courts,
- Debt Courts
- Monthly and Probate Courts,
- Tax Courts
- Revenue Courts
- The Commercial Court
- National Labor Court
- Traffic Courts,
- Juvenile Court
- Magistrate Courts
THE SUPREME COURT OF LIBERIA
The Supreme Court is the head of the Judiciary Branch of the Government of the Republic of Liberia, its Administrative head and spokesperson is the Chief Justice who shall preside over the business of the Court and other ordinary meetings of the Judiciary.
Composition: The 5-members Supreme Court bench is composed of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices who are ranked in seniority order based on tenure on the Supreme Court bench with the longest serving ranked most senior Associate Justice after the Chief Justice. For deliberation purposes, three members of the Supreme Court bench shall constitute a quorum. If a quorum cannot be obtained at any time to hear a case, the President of the Republic of Liberia shall appoint an Ad Hoc Justice from the Circuit Judges for the purpose of having a quorum. Consideration of said Circuit Judge for appointment shall be in the order of seniority.
The President shall nominate and by and with the consent of the Senate, appoint a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, any three of whom shall constitute a quorum at any regular term. They will hold office during good behavior.
No person shall be appointed or hold office as a Justice of the Supreme Court who has not been a citizen of Liberia for at least ten years immediately previous to his appointment, who has not attained the age of thirty years, and who is not a counselor at law licensed to practice in the Supreme Court and engaged in the active practice of law for at least seven years next preceding his appointment. Active practice of law, as used herein, shall include judicial service, governmental service and teaching of law.
In the Supreme Court Chambers, there shall be arranged in order of seniority, five (5) special seats of honor The seat of honor placed in the center of the row is specifically reserved for the Chief Justice. On the right and left sides of the Chief Justice there shall be placed two seats of honor on the immediate right is specifically reserved for the Senior Associate Justice. The seat of honor on the immediately left of the Chief Justice is specifically reserved for the Associate Justice next in rank. The seat of honor on the extreme left is specifically reserved for the Associate Justice last in rank.
To occupy any of the five (5) seats of honor so arranged on the row for the first time, the Chief Justice and the four Associate Justices must be commissioned as and ceremoniously seated during a ceremony planned for the purpose and no one shall occupy any of the seats of honor unless he is commissioned and ceremoniously seated to enable him to participate in the deliberations of the Court.
Any seat of honor which is made vacant by reason of death, resignation or impeachment from office of a Justice of the Supreme Court shall remain vacant until the vacancy is filled by appointment and such appointee is commissioned and ceremoniously seated.
Jurisdiction: The Supreme Court exercises original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors, ministers, and cases in which a country is a party. The Supreme Court also is the final arbiter of constitutional issues and exercises final appellate jurisdiction in all cases emanating from the courts of records (Circuit and specialized courts), from rulings of Justices of the Supreme Court presiding in Chambers on applications for remedial and extraordinary writs, courts not of record, administrative agencies, autonomous agencies or any other authority, both as to law and fact.
In the adjudication process, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices shall have equal votes to reach a decision. In case of tied votes, the Chief Justice who, as a matter of course, is the last vote shall cast the decisive vote and the votes of the majority sitting and voting shall be binding on the court.
No Justice of the Supreme Court shall sit on any case in which he/she is interested or has made a ruling as a Justice presiding in Chambers in connection with an application for a remedial or extraordinary writ or on which he/she sat while a judge of a lower court.
Terms/Sessions of the Courts: The Supreme Court shall hold two terms annually, commencing on the Second Monday of October and on the Second Monday of March and continuing as long as the business before the Court may require. They shall be known as the October and March Term respectively.
Justice Presiding in Chambers: At all times, in term and out of term, there shall be a Justice presiding in the Chambers of the Supreme Court who shall be designated by the Chief Justice in regular rotation from among the Associate Justices, and no such Associate Justice designated shall delegate his powers to another. The Justice presides in chambers of the Supreme Court to issue various writs; such as Mandamus, Prohibition, Quo Warranto, and other remedial writs and processes. The power to issue such writs and remedial processes are exclusively to the Justice in Chambers.
Classification of Judges into Categories.
Judges of the Courts of Law in Liberia shall be classified into categories, as follows:
Category I: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Category I-A: All Associates Justices of the Supreme Court.
Category II: All Circuit Judges of the Republic of Liberia.
Category II-A: All Judges of Specialized Courts.
Category III-B: All Judges of the Provisional Monthly and Probate Courts within the Statutory Districts.
Category III-B: All Juvenile and Traffic Courts Judges, and Stipendiary Magistrates who are lawyers.
Category III-C: All Associates Magistrates.
Judges of the courts of Liberia shall rank according to their categories and the scale of their salaries and benefits shall be arranged accordingly.
THE CIRCUIT COURTS
Jurisdiction: The Circuit Courts exercise original jurisdiction over all cases as to which no other court has, including jurisdiction in Admiralty. However, in Montserrado County, the Circuit Courts of the First Judicial Circuit have the jurisdiction to try criminal cases while the circuit of the Sixth Judicial Circuit has jurisdiction to try cases other than criminal cases.
The circuit courts in each county has jurisdiction to hear appeals from administrative determinations of government agencies and officials in accordance with statutes that provide appeals and from decisions of courts-not-of-record made within the country in which it sits. In Montserrado County, the circuit courts of the First Judicial Circuit hear appeals only in criminal cases arising in Magisterial Courts in Montserrado County while the Sixth Judicial circuit hears appeals only in cases other than criminal cases arising in Magisterial Courts in the County.
Distribution of the circuit courts: Liberia is principally divided into 15 counties. For judicial purposes, the country is divided into 16 Judicial Circuit Courts. There is essentially one Circuit Court in each County, except Montserrado County, which has two circuit courts because of its heavy caseload, – The First Judicial Circuit Court and the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court.
The Circuit Courts are numerically named in order of creation, and are as follows:
First Judicial Circuit
- Criminal Court Assizes “A”
- Criminal Court Assizes “B”
- Criminal Court Assizes “C” (Offenses against Property, Narcotics and hallucinogenic)
- Criminal Court Assizes “D” (Armed Robbery)
- Criminal Court Assizes “E” (Sexual Offenses)
Second Judicial Circuit Court Grand Bassa County
Third Judicial Circuit Court Sinoe County
Fourth Judicial Circuit Court Maryland County
Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Grand Cape Mount County
Sixth Judicial Circuit Court Montserrado County
Seventh Judicial Circuit Court Grand Gedeh County
Eighth Judicial Circuit Court Nimba County
Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Bong County
Tenth Judicial Circuit Court Lofa County
Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court Bomi County
Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Grand Kru County
Thirteen Judicial Circuit Court Margibi County
Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court Rivercess County
Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court River Gee County
Sixteen Judicial Circuit Court Gbarpolu County
Appointment and tenure of Circuit Judges: The President shall nominate and by and with the consent of the Senate, appoint and commission (sixteen) Circuit Judges, (fourteen) of whom shall be resident Judges, one for each circuit, and two of whom shall be relieving judges. They shall hold office during good behavior.
Assignment of judges to Circuits Courts: Each Circuit Judge, except the judges commissioned as relieving judges, shall preside as resident judge over the Circuit Court of the circuit for which he was appointed. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall assign, on a rotating system, a Circuit Judge to each quarterly session of the various circuits and if all business before a circuit court is disposed of before the expiration of a quarterly session, the Chief Justice shall have the power to reassign the Circuit Judge assigned thereto to sit for the balance of the quarterly session in any other circuit in addition to the Circuit Judge currently assigned there, if he deems such reassignment will aid the prompt disposition of judicial business.
Opening dates of the Circuit Courts: Each judicial circuit shall meet four times a year in quarterly sessions. The First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Judicial Circuits of the Circuit Court shall open their quarterly sessions on the second Monday in February, May, August, and November in each year. The quarterly sessions of these circuits shall be entitled the February, May, August and November sessions. The Sixth Judicial Circuit of the Circuit Court shall open its quarterly session on the third Monday in March, June, September and December in each year. The quarterly sessions of that circuit shall be entitled the March, June, September and December Sessions.
Duration of each Term: Ten days before the opening of each quarterly session, there shall be a pre-trial chamber session to be held by the circuit judge assigned to sit during the quarterly sessions which shall immediately be followed by a trial session beginning with the opening of each quarterly session and continuing for forty-two consecutive days not including Sundays and legal holidays unless sooner terminated because all business before the court is disposed of before the expiration of that period. Immediately following the close of the trial session there shall be a ten-day closing chamber session to be held by the judge assigned to sit for the quarterly session and any judge concurrently assigned to the circuit.
The Circuit Court of the several judicial circuits shall be considered always open for adjudication of matters over which they have jurisdiction and for the purpose of filing any pleading or other paper authorized by rule or statute, of issuing and returning mesne and final process and of making and directing all interlocutory motions, orders and rules. Wherever they are present within the circuit, the Circuit Judge assigned to a Circuit Court, during his assignment and the pre-trial chamber session prior thereto, concurrently with the resident judge thereof, shall have authority to act on all matters coming before the court; and if neither is available, then except for the trial of an action and any motions in connection therewith which may be made during and after such trial or any motion for an order that would dispose of the action, in whole or in part, in any manner other than the settlement of an action or claim involving an infant or judicially declared incompetent, all other matters may be heard by the presiding judge of the Circuit Court adjoining the circuit where the action is triable.
Except as provided in the Civil Procedure Law, jury cases shall have preference over all other cases and matters, and criminal cases shall first be heard; provided that the following capital offenses shall have preference over all cases, criminal and civil, in all courts of competent jurisdiction of Liberia, particularly the following cases:
A. Treason D. Terrorism
B. Armed robbery E. Murder
C. Hi-jacking F. Other capital offenses
Notwithstanding the expiration of the session at which it was commenced a trial shall continue until it is completed.
THE SPECIALIZED COURTS
The specialized courts in the Liberian judicial system consist of the following:
- The Commercial Court: The Commercial Court was established in September 2010 to promote a favorable investment climate and instill confidence in the business community.
The Commercial Court is a three-Judge Panel Specialized Court with the Chief Judge as administrative ahead. Cases are heard by one Judge except where the amount involved is in excess of US$1M or its LD$ equivalent in which case it is heard by the three-judge panel. In the instance where a Commercial Court judge cannot sit on a particular case and same requires hearing of the full panel, the Chief Judge writes the Chief Justice for an Ad Hoc Judge. The cases brought before the Commercial Court are assigned for hearing by the Chief Judge in order of filing.
The jurisdiction of the Commercial Court is extensive. The court, which is a circuit-level specialized court that sits monthly, can hear cases on the listed subject matters regardless of residence or where the dispute arose. Simply put, the court can convene any place and anywhere in Liberia to decide matters.
- Commercial claims of US$15,000.00 and above;
- Admiralty: creation, registration, foreclosure of maritime mortgages (Title 21 of LCLR);
- Sales and lease except realty;
- Creation, negotiation, enforcement of negotiable instruments –rights and liabilities included;
- Foreclosure of mortgage (Commercial Code Title 7);
- Agreements: Agency, partnership, corporation or similar business relationship –creation, performance; assignment and/or modification;
- Appeal/decide application for enforcement of final decisions of arbitral panel (Chapter 7 of Commercial Code);
- Subject to USD15,000.00 threshold Commercial Court has concurrent jurisdiction with Debt Court over actions to obtain payments of debt (Forum Convenience).
- Actions cannot be moved from Debt Court to Commercial Court (Forum Shopping).
Commercial Claims include:
- Formation and governance of commercial organization;
- Winding up/bankruptcy of a commercial enterprise;
- Carriage of goods by sea, land, air pipelines;
- Exploration/development of mines, oil and gas;
- Insurance and reinsurance;
- Banking and Financial services;
- Business agencies and franchises;
- Commercial arbitration and other settlement awards;
- Intellectual property, patents, copyrights and trademarks;
- Other claims of a commercial nature
The Debt Court exercises exclusive original jurisdiction in all civil actions to obtain payment of a debt in which the amount is $2001.00 or more. The Debt Court adopts the procedure of the circuit court in the enforcement if its judgment.
Appeal from judgments of the Debt Court or institution of remedial proceedings during trial in the Debt Court do not operate or serve as a stay in the enforcement of its judgment, except when the party was denied its day in court or the amount of the indebtedness is in dispute. Appeals from the determination of the Debt Courts are heard by the Supreme Court.
The Debt Court has concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit Court in the issuing of the writ of Ne Exeat Republic in cases arising out of debt.
Monthly & Probate Court:
The Monthly and Probate has jurisdiction to probate Wills of deceased persons affecting personnel and real properties; grant letters Testamentary and Administration; direct and control the conduct and settle the accounts of executors and administrators; enforce payment of debts of testators and intestates and of their legacies and inheritance and direct the distribution of estates.
The Court also may order the sale and distribution of the real property of deceased persons; and to perform other functions concerning real and personal properties of deceased persons.
The Judicial Circuits sit in Probate matters in the county where a Monthly and Probate Court is not established.
Tax Court and Tax Divisions
The Tax Court and Tax Division of the Circuit Courts have exclusive jurisdiction to review final administrative determinations of assessments of taxes, license fees and other imports, valuations made for tax purposes and denials of claims for refund by the Republic of Liberia or and political sub-divisions or agencies in keeping with the revenue and finance Law. It also has exclusive original jurisdiction over civil penalties and admiralty jurisdiction as necessary to carry out the functions. Except it is expressly provided by other statutes, the Tax Court procedures and enforcement of judgments is the same as those of the circuit court in civil matters.
The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over appeals from decisions and other determinations of the Tax Court.
The Traffic Court has original jurisdiction to try without jury any and all violations of vehicle and traffic laws constituting an infraction. The Court’s jurisdiction is governed by the procedure in criminal proceeding in magisterial courts.
Appeal from the decisions of the Traffic Court is governed by the procedure for appeal from the decisions of Magisterial Courts. Appeal therein lies squarely before the Circuit Court in the county where it is constituted and exercises its jurisdiction. However, only the Circuit Court of the First Judicial Circuit exercises appellate jurisdiction in Montserrado County decision from the traffic court therein.
The Juvenile Court has original jurisdiction over juvenile matters and is mandated to have exclusive original jurisdiction in special proceedings concerning any juvenile, living or found within geographic area.
Although there is statutory mandate for the creation of a Juvenile Court in each county of the Republic and lesser geographic units, only the county of Montserrado currently has a fully constituted Juvenile Court. The Magisterial Courts in the other counties are mandated to assume juvenile court jurisdictions whenever it becomes necessary.
The Circuit court in the county in which a Juvenile Court or Magisterial Court assumes juvenile jurisdiction has appellate jurisdiction over adjudications or dispositions of the court. An appropriate Monthly and Probate Court may also exercise appellate jurisdiction over adjudications or dispositions of the juvenile court.
National Labor Courts:
The jurisdiction of the National Labor Court is confined to causes which involve employees, workman, and/or causes to which employees other than civil servant and specific categories of government employees such as military and police are parties.
Appeals from the Labor Court are heard before the Supreme Court.
The magisterial court has limited jurisdiction over applicable matters and try cases without jury.
In civil cases, except another court has exclusive original jurisdiction, the magisterial courts have original jurisdiction in matters for the recovery of money or chattels or to obtain payment of debt where the amount is less than fifteen thousand dollars and one cent ($15,000.00.01), exclusive of interest and cost.
In criminal proceedings the magisterial are authorized to exercise exclusive original jurisdiction of petty larceny and no other misdemeanor, as well as of all offenses and violations of the Traffic Law, except another court is given exclusive original jurisdiction. The Magisterial Courts have the jurisdiction; hence they are considered Court of “First Instance”.
Appeals from the decisions of Magisterial Courts lie before the Circuit Court in the county in which they sit, if outside of the jurisdiction of the Provisional Probate Courts. However, the First Judicial Circuit has the mandate to hear appeal only in criminal cases arising in Montserrado County and the Sixth Judicial Circuit hears appeal other than criminal cases.
Appeals from the decisions of the Magisterial Courts in actions to obtain payment of debt lie before the Debt Court in the County.
The Liberian Judiciary also has various administrative, technical and specialized departments and units set up to provide needed support to the efficient functioning of the Judicial Branch of the Liberian Government. These departments and units are supervised by the Office of the Court Administrator of the Honorable Supreme Court, an office which serves as the Chief Administrator of the Chief Justice.
The Judiciary also has a number of professional associations created to strengthen and support the dispensation of the Rule of Law in Liberia. These associations include;
- The National Association of Trial Judges of Liberia (NATJL)
- The Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA)
- The Public Defenders Association of Liberia