An Overview Of the The Liberian Court System
Article 65 of the Liberian Constitution creates the highest Court of the land, the Supreme Court of Liberia. This article further empowers the National Legislature to establish other subordinate and specialized Courts in the Republic. Pursuant to this authority, the following Courts are established in addition to the Supreme Court:
The Circuit Courts,
Monthly and Probate Courts,
Tax Courts, Labor Courts,
Magistrate Courts and
Justice of the Peace Courts.
The Supreme Court and all these statutory courts, save the Labor Courts, constitute what is known and referred to as the Judiciary Branch of the Liberian Government.
The Labor Courts established under Section 120 of the Liberian Labor Laws provides for the establishment of a specialized administrative forum known as the Labor Law Courts. These courts are under the authority of the Ministry of Labor.
Finally, there are Tribal Courts that exercise jurisdiction over tribal persons in tribal matters pursuant to the Local Government Laws of the Republic of Liberia These Courts are administered by traditional authorities ( tribal chiefs, governors, paramount, clan and town chiefs ).
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court exercises original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors, ministers, and cases in which a county is a party. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of constitutional issues and exercises final appellate jurisdiction in all cases emanating from the courts of record (Circuit and specialized courts), courts not of record, administrative agencies, autonomous agencies or any other authority, both as to law and fact.
The 5-member Supreme Court bench is composed of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices. 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 among the Circuit Judges for the purpose of having a quorum. Consideration of said Circuit Judge for appointment shall be in the order of seniority.
Terms/Sessions of the Court:
The Supreme Court has two annual terms or session, namely: March Term and October Term, each of which term commences the second Monday of the month.
Justice Presiding in Chambers:
Unlike the United States Federal system and other common jurisdiction, Liberia does not have an intermediary appellate court. However, at all times there is a Justice who presides in the chambers of the Court to issue various writs such as of Mandamus, Prohibition, Quo Warranto, and other remedial writs and processes. The Chief Justice has the authority to designate one of the Associate Justices to serve as the Chambers Justice rotationally. Appeals from the Justice in Chambers Justice go up to the Supreme Court sitting en benc.
The Circuit Courts:
The Circuit Court exercises 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 Juridical 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 court in each county jurisdiction hears 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 county in which it sits. In Montserrado County, the circuit court of the First Judicial Circuit hears appeals only in criminal cases arising in Montserrado County while the Sixth Judicial circuit hears appeals only in cases other than criminal cases arising in Montserrado 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, because of its heavy caseload, which has two circuit courts – The First Judicial Circuit Court and The Sixth Judicial Circuit Court. These Circuits Courts are numerically named in order of creation are as follows:
A.Criminal Court Assizes
B. Criminal Court Assizes “B”
C.Criminal Court Assizes “C”
D. Criminal Court Assizes “D”
E. Criminal Court Assizes “E”
Second Judicial 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
Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court Migibi County
Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court Rivercess County
Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court River Gee County
Sixteen Judicial Circuit Gbarpolu County
The Specialized Courts
The specialized courts in the Liberian judicial system consist of the followings:
A Debt Court exists and functions in the City of Each of the County in the Republic of Liberia.
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 of its judgment.
Appeals 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 where the party was denied its day in court or the amount of the indebtedness is in dispute. Appeals from the determinations of the Debt Courts are heard by the Supreme Court.
The Debt Courts have concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit Courts in the issuing of the writ of Ne Exeat Republicain cases arising out of debt.
Monthly & Probate Court:
The Circuit Courts in each of the Counties sit in Monthly and Probate jurisdiction to probate Wills of deceased persons affecting personal 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 distributions of estates; The Court also may order the sales and distribution of the real property of deceased persons; and to perform other functions concerning real and personal properties of deceased persons. The County of Montserrado and the District of Careysburg operate Monthly and Probate courts outside of the jurisdiction of the circuits. The Monthly and Probate Courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters of probate concerns stated supra. Further, it exercises appellate jurisdiction in cases from courts not of record within their respective magisterial and justice of the peace areas involving actions to obtain payment of debt and matrimonial causes arising under tribal customary law.
Tax Court and Tax Divisions
There is a Tax Court constituted by statutory authorization in each of the political sub-division of the Republic of Liberia.
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 any 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.
Term of Court:
The term of court for the conduct of tax matters is fixed by the chief Justice. The Chief Justice also makes the rules and regulation for the operation and administration of the Tax court.
The Law authorizes the creation and constitution of a Traffic court in each of the counties of the Republic as well as in lesser geographic subdivisions of the Republic. In Lesser geographic areas, the Magistrates and Justices of the Peace are mandated to assume jurisdiction as Traffic Court in addition to their other functions.
The Traffic court has original jurisdiction to try without jury any and all violations of vehicle and traffic law constituting an infraction. The Court’s jurisdiction is governed by the procedure in criminal proceedings in magisterial and justice of the peace courts.
Appeal from the decisions of the Traffic Court is governed by the procedure for appeal from the decisions of Magisterial and Justice of the Peace 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 Fist Judicial Circuit exercises appellate jurisdiction in Montserrado County decisions from the traffic court therein.
Although the there is statutory mandate for the creation of a Juvenile Court in each of counties of the Republic and lesser geographic units, only the county of Montserrado currently has a fully constituted Juvenile court. The Magisterial Courts in other geographic are mandated to assume juvenile court jurisdiction whenever it becomes necessary to carry out juvenile court Procedure Code, in addition to their other functions.
The Juvenile Court where ever it is constituted or the magisterial court whenever it assumes juvenile jurisdiction is mandated to have exclusive original jurisdiction in special proceedings concerning any juvenile, living or found within its geographic area.
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.
The Judicial Law authorizes establishment of Labor courts in each County and District of the Republic of Liberia. Each Labor Court is presided over by a Labor Commissioner who is considered an agent of the Ministry of Labor. The Labor Commissioner is appointed by the President.
The jurisdiction of the Labor Court is confined to causes which involve employees, workmen, and/or causes to which employees other than government employees are parties. The Labor Courts are barred from exercising civil or criminal jurisdiction. Such jurisdiction is conferred on Stipendiary Magistrates and Justices of the Peace in the County.
Appeals from the Labor Courts are heard de novo in the Labor court of the Judicial Circuit. However, an appeal from the decision of the Labor Court may go directly before the Supreme Court.
Magisterial Courts are established in each City, Municipal District or Commonwealth District and is often referred to as “City court”, “Municipal court” or ”Commonwealth Court”. Defining the Magisterial area or extending a Magisterial area is left to the discretion of the President. The President can designate additional Magisterial area and establish Magisterial Courts.
The magistrate’s court has limited jurisdiction over applicable matters and try causes 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 two thousand dollars and one cent ($2,000.01), exclusive of interest and cost. The court jurisdiction does not extend to actions for injuries to domestic relations, defined in the Domestic Relations Law; and SUMMARY PROCEEDINGS to recover possession of real property within their magisterial areas to remove tenants wherefrom and render judgment for rent due, provided that the damages do not exceed $500.00 exclusive of interest and cost. However, if two or more claims for relief are joined in a proceeding, the sum of the amount sought should not exceed the amounts herein set forth. If a counter claim is made, the amount sought, or two or more claims joined therein should not exceed the monetary limitations herein set forth.
In criminal proceedings the magisterial courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the justices of the peace courts and are authorized to exercise exclusive original jurisdiction of petty larceny and no other misdemeanor, as well as of all offense and violations of the Traffic Law, except another court is give exclusive original jurisdiction. The Magistrate Courts have the mandate to hold court for the examination of persons charged with an offense over which a superior court has original jurisdiction, hence they are considered Courts of “First Instance”.
In juvenile court proceedings, the magisterial court exercises jurisdiction in its magisterial area in accordance with the provisions and procedures of the Juvenile Procedural Code; provided another court in the same geographic area has not exclusive jurisdiction.
In filiations proceedings, the magisterial courts exercise jurisdiction in their respective geographic areas in accordance with the provisions and procedures of the Domestic Relations law.
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 appeals only in criminal cases arising in Montserrado County and the Sixth Judicial Circuit hears appeals other than criminal cases.
Appeals from the decisions of the Magisterial Courts in actions to obtain payment of a debt lie before the Debt Court in the County.
Justice of the Peace Court
Like the Magistrate Court, the President designates the geographic area, such as the city, township, or settlement over which each Justice of the Peace shall have territorial jurisdiction and hold court for the trial of actions or special proceedings as well as the exercise other authority incidental to his/her office.
The Justice of the Peace Court has limited jurisdiction where applicable matters are tried without Jury.
In civil cases, the Justice of the Peace court has original jurisdiction for the recovery of money or chattels where the amount does not exceed $50.00 exclusive of interest and costs; provided that in actions to obtain payment of debt the amount sought may exceed $50.00 but not more than $100.00 exclusive of interest and costs. However, its jurisdiction does not extend to actions for injuries to domestic relations, libel and slander or action for damages of malicious suits, actions, prosecutions or other legal proceedings.
Summary proceedings to recover possession of real property in whole or in part to remove tenants and render judgment for rent due, if the amount dos not exceed $500.00 exclusive of interest and costs. However, if two or more claims are joined, the aggregate shall no exceed $500.00. Also, if a counter claim is interposed for relief, the aggregate amount need not exceed the monetary limitations stated herein.
In criminal cases, the Justice of the Peace exercises concurrent jurisdiction with that of the Magisterial Court with original jurisdiction over cases of petit larceny and no other misdemeanor of a grade less than misdemeanor, including offenses and violations of the Traffic and Vehicle Law. Justices of the Peace hold court proceedings for the examination of persons charged with offense over which a superior court has original jurisdiction within their respective designated territorial jurisdictions and contiguous areas over criminal proceedings where no Magisterial or Justice of the Peace Court is established.
Justices of the Peace Courts also exercise jurisdiction over filiation proceedings within their respective designated territorial jurisdiction in keeping with the Domestic Relations law of the Republic.
Similar to that of the Magisterial Courts, The Circuit Court in the County has appellate jurisdiction over decisions of, except that the Circuit Court of the First and Sixth Judicial Circuit in Montserrado County have appellate jurisdictions over criminal and civil matters, respectively from the decisions of the justices of the peace courts. The Debt Court in the county in which a justice of the peace court sits hears appeals from the Justice of the Peace Court decisions on debt matters.