UPDATE: Liberian Legal System and Legal Research
By Hanatu Kabbah
Hanatu Kabbah holds an LL.B (Hons.) and an LL.M (Public Service Law) degree from NYU. She is a senior legal consultant and researcher, public interest practitioner with experience working on access to justice in the formal and informal justice sector. She has researched rule of law issues and developed tools for legal and non- legal advocates. She taught at the Faculty of Law, University of the Gambia and was the Director of the Law Clinic of the UTG. She received her Bachelor of Laws Degree with Honours (LL.B. Hons.) from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and a Degree of Utter Barrister at the Sierra Leone Law School. She has been admitted to the Sierra Leone Bar since 1999. She holds a Diploma in the Equal Status and Human Rights of Women in 2002 from the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law from Lund University in Sweden and has also studied at the Rene Cassin International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. She is also a Transitional Justice Fellow after studying at the Transitional Justice Fellowship Programme organized by the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa in 2007. She is the author of ‘A Training Manual on Women’s Rights in Sierra Leone’.
Table of Contents
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Historical Note
- 3. The Government
- 4. The Legislature
- 5. The Executive
- 6. The Judiciary
- 7. The Supreme Court
- 8. Circuit Courts
- 9. Magistrates Courts
- 10. Justices of the Peace
- 11. The Legal System
- 12. Sources of Law in Liberia
- 13. The Constitution
- 14. Legislation
- 15. Delegated Legislation
- 16. Statutes
- 17. Customary Law
- 18. Court Precedents
- 19. Legal Education
- 20. The Legal Profession
- 21. Treaties
- 22. Law Reporting
- 23. Primary and Secondary Legal Sources
Liberia is situated on the West Coast of Africa and is bordered by the Ivory Coast to the northeast, Guinea to the north and Sierra Leone to the west. It is also bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the south. The country has 579 kilometers of coastline and an area of 11,369 square kilometers.
Liberia, referred to as Africa’s oldest democracy, was founded in 1822 by United States of America President James Monroe as a safe haven for emancipated slaves. The capital city of Liberia is Monrovia. The principal towns are Ganta, Buchanan, Kakata and Voinjama. There are 15 counties in the Republic of Liberia, namely: Bomi, Bong, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Lofa, Margibi, Maryland, Montserrado, Nimba, River Cess, River Gee and Sinoe.
There are about 16 ethnic dialects spoken in the country, though the national language is English. Liberia has a population of 3.49 million people. The 2008 preliminary census report is now available on the government’s website. Liberia is rich in natural resources, including gold, timber, diamonds, and iron ore. It also has extensive rubber plantations.
Liberia had an internal armed conflict which spanned several years. From 1989 to 1996, the Liberian war was one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in Africa. War broke out in the country in 1989, led by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front. The start of the war marked the end to about 10 years of dictatorial military rule by Samuel K. Doe. In 1990, Doe was killed by a warring faction led by Prince Johnson. This period was marked with widespread atrocities and human rights violations. At the end of the conflict, Charles Taylor – a former warlord – was elected president of the Republic of Liberia after the United Nations monitored democratic elections held in 1997. Former President Charles Taylor, who was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone has been convicted. He was tried in The Hague, Amsterdam. He was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment by the Trial Chamber and on appeal, his conviction and sentence was upheld. For more information on his case please see the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone website.
Liberia also instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a transitional justice mechanism to deal with past atrocities. The TRC is the result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that mandated the creation of a national TRC. It was passed into law in June 2005 by the TRC ACT of 2005. The mandate of the TRC is to investigate the root causes of the conflict, document human rights violations, review the history of Liberia and put all human rights abuses that occurred from 1989 to 2003 on record. The final report of the TRC has been concluded and can be accessed at the TRC of Liberia website. For more information on the work of the Liberian TRC please see TRC of Liberia and also the Liberia page of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) website.
Liberia became an independent state in 1847. The country was founded by emancipated slaves from the United States of America. Prior to the abolition of slavery by the British Parliament and because of pressure from abolitionists, President Monroe repatriated descendants of African slaves who had the willingness to return to Africa. These founders brought common law with them to their new territory, along with the institutions of parliamentary democracy and the English language.
However, only about 5% of the country’s approximately 3.49 million are descendants of the emancipated slaves. The rest of the population comprises indigenous Africans. Liberia’s recent history is marred by civil strife and conflict. The country was, after independence, governed by the minority Afro-American settlers until April 1980 when Samuel Doe, a member of the army, launched a military coup and took power. In 1989, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (N.P.F.L), led by Charles Taylor, started an armed conflict against Doe’s arbitrary rule, took control of much of the country, and in 1990, Doe was executed by a breakaway faction of the NPFL, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) led by Prince Johnson. In October 1990, an interim government of National Unity was formed with Dr. Amos Sawyer serving as its head. In 1997, elections were conducted which ended with Charles Taylor – the former warlord – emerging as winner. However, in August 2003, he resigned and went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government was formed which was headed by Gyude Bryant, a businessman. In October 2005, presidential and legislative elections were held that led to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf being elected as Africa’s first woman president. She was re-elected for a second term in office in 2011. George Opong Weah, elected in 2018, is now serving as the 25th President of Liberia. He previously served as a Senator from Montserrado County.
The 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia guarantees the three arms of government, namely:
- The Legislature;
- The Executive; and,
- The Judiciary.
The legislative power is vested in the Legislature of Liberia, which consists of two separate houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate is comprised of 30 seats while the House of Representatives holds 64 seats. The Senate has as its head a President and there are provisions for the appointment of a President pro tempore to serve in the absence of the President- Article 47 of Chapter V of the Constitution. The Speaker is appointed from the House of Representatives -Article 49.
Article 30 of the Constitution states that citizens who meet the following qualifications are eligible to become members of the legislature:
- For the Senate, the individual must have attained the age of 30 years; in the House of Representatives, the individual must have attained the age of 25 years.
- The individual must be domiciled in the country or constituency which he or she will represent not less than one year prior to the time of the election and be a taxpayer.
Members of the Senate are elected for a term of nine years (Article 45), and members of the House of Representatives are elected for a term of six years (Article 48). That said, a member elected in a by-election to fill a vacancy due to death, resignation or otherwise, shall be elected to serve only the reminder of the unexpired term of the office.
According to Article 33 of the constitution, a simple majority in each House shall constitute a quorum for the transaction of business. Whenever the House of Representatives and the Senate are to meet in joint session, the presiding officer of the House of Representatives shall preside.
Article 34 of the Constitution lists the powers of the Legislature of the Republic of Liberia.
The executive power of the Republic of Liberia is vested in the President, who is the Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. The elected President holds office for a term of six years and can be eligible for a second term. See Article 50.
Section 52 creates the office of the Vice President, who shall assist the President in the discharge of his functions. The Vice President is elected on the same political ticket as the President and shall serve the same term as the President. See Section 52. The Vice President will preside over the Senate’s deliberations without the right to vote, except in the case of a tied vote.
For a person to be elected President or Vice President of Liberia, he or she must possess the following:
- Must be a natural born Liberian citizen of not less than 35 years of age;
- The owner of unencumbered real property valued at not less than twenty-five thousand dollars; and,
- Must have been a resident of the Republic ten years prior to his election, provided that the President and the Vice President shall not come from the same country.
Article 54 lists the categories of positions that the President can nominate and, with the consent of the Senate, appoint and commission. These include:
- Cabinet Ministers, Deputy and Assistant Cabinet Ministers;
- Ambassadors, Ministers, and Consuls;
- The Chief Justice and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and Judges of subordinate courts;
- Superintendents, other county officials and officials of other political sub-divisions;
- Members of the military from the rank of lieutenant or its equivalent and above; and,
- Marshals, deputy marshals and sheriffs.
The President shall also appoint and commission Notary Publics and Justices of the Peace who shall hold office for a term of two years but may be removed by the President with cause. See Article 55.
Article 56(a) provides that cabinet ministers and their deputies, ambassadors, ministers and consuls, superintendents of counties and other government officials, both military and civilian, appointed by the President pursuant to the Constitution, shall hold their office at the pleasure of the President. Paramount, clan and town chiefs are elected to serve for a term of six years. They are eligible for reelection and may be removed only by the President for proved misconduct. See Article 56(b).
Other key powers or functions of the President include the power to conduct the foreign affairs of the country, including the conclusion of treaties, conventions and similar international agreements with the concurrence of a majority of each House of the Legislature. See Article 58. The President may also remit any public forfeitures and penalties, suspend fines and sentences, grant reprieves and pardons, and restore civil rights after conviction for all public offences, except impeachment. See Article 59.
The Government has developed an anti- corruption strategy, prepared a Public Officials Code of Conduct and Rules and Procedures for civil servants.
For more on the activities and major policies of the government of Liberia and to access other links, including public corporations, autonomous agencies etc., please see the government website.
In the Republic of Liberia, judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and such subordinate courts as the legislature may from time to time establish. The Supreme Court is headed by the Chief Justice, the Circuit Courts by the Circuit Court judges, Magistrates Courts by stipendiary magistrates, and Justices of the Peace Courts are headed by Justices of the Peace. All courts are empowered to apply both statutory and customary laws. See Article 65. Liberia has a unitary form of government. At the judicial level, all of the formal courts are part of the national system and get supervision by the Supreme Court. There is also a system of customary law recognized in the court system by the Judiciary Law of 1972. The Law governing the traditional court system is included in the Revised Rules and Regulation Governing the Hinterland of Liberia of 2000. Traditional and lay courts exist in the rural areas of Liberia. Trial by ordeal, although officially outlawed, is still practiced in various areas of the country.
Article 66 states that the Supreme Court shall be the final arbiter of constitutional issues. This means the court has the power to determine the ultimate constitutionality of legislation. The Supreme Court can declare legal rules unconstitutional if they conflict with the provisions in the constitution. The Supreme Court also has the following powers:
- To exercise final appellate jurisdiction in all cases, whether emanating for courts of record, courts not of record, administrative agencies, autonomous agencies or any other authority, ministers, or cases in which a country is a party.
- In such cases, the Supreme Court shall exercise original jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court is comprised of:
- The Chief Justice
- Four Associate Justices
The Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed and commissioned by the President but must have the consent of the Senate. To be eligible for the positions, the person must fulfill the following requirements:
- Must be a citizen of Liberia and of good moral character; and,
- A counselor of the Supreme Court Bar who has practiced for at least 5 years.
Circuit Courts have original jurisdiction in the most serious cases, including aggravated assault, burglary, rape and murder.
Magistrate Courts have civil and criminal jurisdiction. In very serious cases/matters including rape, murder, or burglary, the magistrate courts must refer to circuit courts after preliminary hearings are conducted. There is a provision for about 79 magisterial courts to be located in Monrovia and the various counties in the country. Each Court has a stipendiary magistrate with two associate magistrates. A stipendiary magistrate is supposed to be a qualified lawyer, while the associate magistrates are not required to be qualified.
According to the Liberia Judiciary Law in §8.3(a) and §8.3(b), Justices of the Peace are to adjudicate on a very limited range of civil and criminal cases.
The Legal System in Liberia is a dual one of statutory law based on Anglo-American common law for the modern sector and customary law based on unwritten customary practices for the indigenous people.
The Primary Sources of Law in Liberia are:
- The Constitution
- The Customary Law
- Court Precedents
The Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic of Liberia. According to Article 2 of the Constitution, all laws and decisions by state institutions must be in strict conformity with the Constitution. According to Article 91 of the Constitution, an initiative to amend the Constitution may come from either two-thirds of the membership of both the Senate and House of Representatives or a petition submitted for approval to the Legislature by not fewer than 10,000 (ten thousand) citizens.
The Republic of Liberia has had two Constitutions. The first was the 1847 Constitution which was suspended on April 12, 1980, following the coup d’état which overthrew the presidency of H. E. William R. Tolbert, Jr. On July 3, 1984, the 1984 constitution was submitted to a national referendum and approved. To know about the various constitutions, including the draft 1983 Constitution and the Liberian Declaration of Independence, see the Home of Liberian Constitutions.
The current 1984 Constitution can be accessed online at the following website: ministry of information of the Republic of Liberia website. The Liberia Constitution can also be found at The Perspective and at the Constitution finder at the University of Richmond.
The ultimate legislator in the Republic of Liberia is the bicameral national assembly. Chapter V of the Constitution provides for the Legislature of the Republic of Liberia.
Article 35 of the Constitution outlines the process for the passage of bills in the Legislature. Specifically, Article 29 states that both houses must pass all legislation.
Article 89 of the Constitution establishes three (3) independent bodies. These are the Civil Service Commission, the Elections Commission and the General Auditing Commission. These are independent bodies with specific powers. These powers are entrenched in their respective laws. The legislature is responsible for enacting laws for the governing of these Commissions. The National Elections website provides links to election laws and regulations.
Article 92 of the Constitution mentions the publication of an Official Gazette in Liberia. See the CRL’s Foreign Official Gazettes database for Liberian holdings.
A wide variety of bodies, from government departments through local authorities and public corporations to private corporations, can be entrusted with powers by the legislature to implement and administer the requirements of the law.
The Primary Statutes are the Model Penal Code 1956 amended. See Section 14.80 “Sex and Related Offences Law.” This is the new Rape Law introduced in March 2005. Recent Laws include the Children’s Act of 2012 and the Education Reform Act of 2011. The Freedom of Information Act 2008 and Land Rights Act 2018 have also been passed. Please see the Ministry of Gender and Development and the Liberia Information Institute website. The Liberia Code of Laws (Revised) Volume 1 1974 contains legal provisions for both Civil and Criminal Law. For detailed information on Liberian Law Statutes online, please access the Cornell Law Library Liberian Law Collection Online. The Liberia Intellectual Property Act 2016 has been enacted repealing the Copy Right Law 1997 and Industrial Property Act 2003 formerly constituting Title 24 of the Liberia Code of Laws Revised. The WIPO has a collection of Intellectual Property Law enacted by the Liberian Legislature. A law database of the main policies, laws and regulations governing forest conversion encompassing environment, forests wildlife, land and related legislations in Liberia can be found on Client Earth – Liberia Law Database. It also provides information on relevant actors in the field of natural resources and community rights related issues in Liberia.
Revised Liberian Codes can also be consulted at the University of Pretoria on this catalogue. This is a collection of published Acts adopted by the legislature of Liberia. See also the World Law Guide.
The Constitution of Liberia recognizes customary law. See Article 2 of the Constitution. According to the Constitution, statutory laws and common law of the formal legal system govern all Liberians, whereas the old Rules and Regulation Governing the Hinterland refer to the adjudication of cases for “civilized people” and “natives.” According to Article 65 of Chapter V11 of the Liberian Constitution, the courts are empowered to apply statutory law as well as customary law in accordance with the standards enacted by the Legislature. The Rules and Regulations Governing Local Government officials of the Political Sub-Divisions of Liberia (Revised Edition 2000) provide a procedural framework for the adjudication of customary law cases. Local Commissions and Superintendents perform the functions of executive oversight over customary law in Liberia. Liberian Customary Law is offered as an elective course at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law. The seminar examines customary law and its role in Liberian Jurisprudence and community. It aims to examine the complexities of the dual legal system of Liberia and its implications on issues such as inheritance, property rights, gender equality.
18. Court Precedents
Case law can serve as a source of law or it can help to interpret the law. According to Article 66 of the Constitution, judgments of the Supreme Court are final and binding and shall not be subject to appeal or review by any other branch of government.
Liberia’s law school was founded by Rudolph Grimes, who was the 1st Dean of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia. The Law School was named after his father, who was one of Liberia’s greatest lawyers and jurists. The law school is a graduate school at the University. For more on this please see Liberia iTech.
The law school offers two programs for attaining a Bachelor of Laws Degree – a three-year morning program and a five-year evening program. For more information on the requirements, curriculum, etc. of the law school, please see the University of Liberia website. See also the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law website. There is information on resources including the newsletter of the law school. Human Rights Law is a mandatory course and is offered during one’s final year at the university. Upon completion of their course of study, a bar examination has to be successfully completed. This results in admission to the Bar with permission to practice in the lower courts. These are the Magisterial and Justice of the Peace courts. After at least three years of practice as an Attorney of Law, another bar examination can be taken to allow admittance to practice in the Supreme Court of Liberia and to be considered a Counselor at Law.
The James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute was established in 2008. Its goal is to enhance the legal system in the Republic of Liberia by providing proper training to all judicial officers and court staff. The Institute produced its first graduates from its Professional Magistrate Training Program in June 2011.
The Harbel College has been established. The Harbel College Act of 2012 states as its preamble ‘An Act to establish the Harbel College and grant it college status in the Republic of Liberia’. One of its departments provided for in the Act is the Department of Criminal Justice Administration.
The Liberian National Bar Association has its headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia. There is also the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia. The Code of Moral and Professional Ethics and the Procedure Governing the operation of the National Bar Association of The Republic of Liberia in matters of Unprofessional and Unethical conduct of lawyers can both be found at LiberLII.
International treaties signed and ratified by the State of Liberia have to be domesticated for them to have the force of law in the country. Liberia is a signatory and has ratified a number of international treaties and conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). In September 2005, Liberia became a State party to the 2nd Optional Protocol of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the abolition of the death penalty. Liberia consequently declared the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes. The Republic of Liberia has also signed a number of treaties, though it has not ratified them, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Optional Protocol to the CRC etc. For more on this, please see the Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota.
According to Article 57 of the Constitution, the President is empowered to conclude treaties, conventions and similar international agreements with the concurrence of a majority of both the Senate and the House of Representative. It is further provided in Article 34 (d) iii b. that the Legislature has the power to approve treaties, conventions and such other international agreements negotiated or signed on behalf of the Republic of Liberia. The President of the Republic signs international treaties on behalf of the State, but the legislature has to approve them.
Liberia is also a member of many international organizations, participating in the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNESCO, the World Health Organization (WHO), IBRD, WIPO, and the IMF. For more information on this issue please see Index Mundi.
The Liberia Law Reports is produced by Milton Kovich – Cornell. These law reports are available in hard copies.
Liberian statutes can be accessed online. The most detailed list of these statutes can be found at the Cornell University Law Library.
The Liberia Legal Information Institute, an online resource provides access to a variety of legal resources including Constitutions, codes, legislative Acts, Executive Orders, Court Rules and Law Journal. It can be accessed at LiberLII.
Some of the primary materials for researching Liberian law include the Constitution of Liberia, the Revised Civil Procedure Law, and the Model Penal Code 1956 as amended.
The secondary sources of law are the Liberian Law Reports.
The Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law also publishes a legal journal called the Liberian Law Journal. Publication started in 1965 but ceased in 1987 due to the civil conflict in the country. Publication was revived in 2010 and several editions have been published. These can be accessed online at the Liberia Legal Information Institute.
The Liberian Studies Association publishes the Liberian Studies Journal twice a year. This is a scholarly journal that publishes original research on social, political, economic, scientific and other issues about Liberia or with implications for Liberia. To access the journal series please see On Liberia. The law library of Congress is also a comprehensive source of information on Liberia including links to various other websites. Please see the Library of Congress. Another online source of information on Liberia is the African Studies Centre of the University of Pennsylvania.
Online newspapers on Liberia include New Republic Liberia, The New Dawn, The New Democrat, The Liberian Observer, The Analyst, TLC Africa, Daily Observer, Front Page Africa, Global News Network and The Inquirer.