Building Accountable Justice in Sierra Leone

Clare Castillejo
Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE)
Year of publication: 

What are the main challenges and opportunities in building more accountable justice institutions in Sierra Leone? This Working Paper from the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior is based on field research conducted in June 2008 and analyses five key components of accountability – access, equality, information, oversight and participation. The primary challenge for the justice system in Sierra Leone is capacity. Across all the justice institutions there is a serious lack of funds, skilled personnel and infrastructure. Capacity building is crucial and (re-)building the capacity of justice institutions provides important opportunities to strengthen their accountability by improving oversight and information systems, addressing barriers to access and discriminatory practices, and involving citizens in decision-making.

Rebuilding and reforming the justice system has been a major priority for Sierra Leone's government and donors following the end of the conflict. There has been a particular focus on developing accountability to citizens, as both lack of justice and unaccountable and unresponsive governance were root causes of the conflict. However, the low levels of capacity and funds, and the enormity of the challenges, have meant that progress has been slow. Justice institutions still lack much basic infrastructure and human capacity and justice remains inaccessible to large sections of the population.

In 2005 DFID established a comprehensive Justice Sector Development Programme which supported the development of a sector-wide Justice Sector Reform Strategy. This strategy prioritises strengthening primary justice and has four overarching goals: safer communities through strengthening police; better access to justice through improving quality of local courts and providing paralegal services; strengthened rule of law by addressing corruption and maladministration; and improved justice service delivery though improving the performance of justice institutions.

The primary challenge for the justice system in Sierra Leone is capacity. Across all the justice institutions there is a serious lack of funds, skilled personnel and infrastructure. Research findings include the following:

  • Accessibility: The main barrier is cost. Others are lack of skilled and trained personnel, national law that remains out of line with Sierra Leone’s human rights commitments, and social and economic barriers.
  • Equality: The most serious concerns relate to the customary justice system, which is managed by senior men, based on traditional law, with little oversight from other authorities and often in contradiction with the formal rights of marginalised groups.
  • Access to information and knowledge: Providing justice personnel with the information they require is a huge challenge. The majority of citizens do not have information about their rights and the laws that apply to them, or about the role of justice institutions.
  • Oversight, complaint and redress mechanisms: There is resistance from those whose power is challenged and a serious lack of capacity within these oversight institutions.
  • Participation in decision-making: Citizen participation in decisions about customary justice is limited and discretionary. There are some mechanisms for participation within the formal system. In terms of donor consultation there was significant criticism from civil society organisations.

The Justice Sector Reform Strategy must be well prioritised and sequenced to ensure that the most pressing priorities are funded. Donors working in the justice sector should provide adequate support – both for the activities in the strategy and to create strong central institutions that can effectively manage its implementation. They should also consider the following issues:

  • There is recognition of the importance of the customary sector but limited plans to address it, and the vast majority of donor support to the justice sector is focused on formal institutions.
  • It is important that civil society monitoring is not seen as a replacement for state oversight.
  • It is very important to strengthen not just the justice institutions themselves, but also the ministries that oversee them.
  • More personnel are required across all justice institutions and donors may need to explore ways to fund some of this cost in the medium term. Funding expensive consultants to do the work of core staff is not a useful response.
  • It is important that efforts to address inequality within the justice system are linked with broader measures to address discrimination within society and empower marginalised groups. Quotas or positive discrimination in training and hiring practices should be considered to facilitate this.
  • Existing donors should continue to support justice sector reform beyond the life of the strategy.