In its final report, Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC, 2004) indicted the country’s judicial system for its role in the devastating 1991-2002 civil war. Findings ranged from the failure of judges and lawyers to stand up to systematic rights violations and widespread use of illegal detention to rampant corruption and political interference from the executive branch.
The government, civil society, and international partners have built on the TRC findings to pursue justice-system reforms, but grave challenges remain, including inadequate funding and staffing, large case backlogs, continuing corruption, and a lack of enforcement of professional standards (Brima, 2015; Human Rights Watch, 2011).
While the TRC concluded that there was “little or no meaningful access to the courts for the majority of Sierra Leoneans” (p. 91), how do citizens perceive their legal system and their access to justice a decade later? Core elements that define citizens’ access to justice include:
1) a supportive legal framework,
2) citizen awareness of their legal rights and responsibilities,
3) availability of legal advice and representation,
4) availability of affordable and accessible justice institutions,
5) the practice of fair procedures in those institutions, and
6) enforceability of decisions (American Bar Association, 2012). Afrobarometer Round 6 surveys included a special module that explored citizens’ perceptions of the legal system, their access to it, and their experiences when engaging with it. (For findings across all surveyed countries, please see Afrobarometer Policy Paper No. 39.)
Survey responses in Sierra Leone suggest that the country’s legal system still has a long way to go to provide citizens access to justice. Sierra Leoneans are significantly more likely than most Africans to distrust the courts and to perceive judges and magistrates as corrupt. Very few Sierra Leoneans even use the courts: The country ranks sixth-lowest, among 36 African countries surveyed in 2014/2015, in the proportion of citizens reporting contact with the court system.
Among citizens who did have dealings with the courts, most found it difficult to get the assistance they needed, and almost two-thirds say they had to pay a bribe – about double the regional and continental averages (Figure above). Many complained of long delays, high costs, the complexities of the legal system, a lack of legal counsel, and judges who wouldn’t listen.