Seven years have passed since the end of civil conflict in Liberia, and the process of rebuilding the justice system continues. The ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is playing a key role in this process through its involvement with the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute (Institute), a Liberian judiciary body with a wide-ranging judicial education and reform mandate.
ABA ROLI’s goal has been the development of a sustainable, Liberian-led training institution, one equipped to identify and address Liberian justice needs. The Institute’s opening in June 2008 was the first small step, however, current challenges include a dearth of suitably qualified Liberian trainers, difficulties in accessing the law and a lack of training materials. The Institute, under the guidance of a board of governors that includes representatives from all three branches of government, the Institute has sought to address these challenges.
With ABA ROLI’s continuing technical, logistical and financial support, the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute has developed into a critical instrument of judicial reform in Liberia.
The first quarterly training of judges took place in January of 2009. Curricula for this ongoing ABA ROLI-funded program were developed in conjunction with the Liberian Trial Judges Association. Coursework includes core substantive law, procedural rules and courtroom skills. Since that time, the Institute has established additional training programs tailored for magistrates and public defenders.
A key factor in the programs’ success has been ABA ROLI’s emphasis on identifying and nurturing potential Liberian trainers. Three experienced magistrates were seconded, full-time, to the Institute, and have received instructional design and facilitation training through ABA ROLI. These magistrate-trainers have subsequently developed Liberia’s first Professional Magistrates Training Program. This unprecedented initiative—training carefully selected college graduates to preside in Liberia’s lowest courts of limited jurisdiction—will substantially improve the ability of these courts to administer justice to the Liberian people.
Another ABA ROLI-supported project has been the creation and dissemination of Liberia’s first benchbooks, which covered the criminal procedure and other relevant laws. The benchbooks serve as the Institute’s prime teaching resource and they are increasingly cited as the predominant courtroom reference material for judges across the country.
Since 2006, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) has partnered with Liberia’s only law school, the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia. Our programs promote the enhancement of legal education in the country, an effort that is bolstered by the fact that ABA ROLI’s offices are located in the law school building.
In 2009, ABA ROLI opened the Legal Skills Center to meet the needs of law students and new attorneys whose education has been sorely disadvantaged by 14 years of civil war and the country’s struggle to recover from the destruction of its institutions.
The center focuses on developing discipline in thinking logically and analytically, on teaching the basics of legal writing and research and on cultivating precise speaking. Most students are older than traditional students, so adult methodologies are used in the small, highly-interactive classroom.
Building capacity among students and young lawyers is a primary goal, but sustainability is critical. Thus, the Legal Skills Center employs a three-pronged approach. First, the development of teaching materials and scripts is ongoing, focusing on target areas. Second, the center conducts training, assessing students and revising material regularly. And third, it prepares center graduates to become trainers who, in turn, teach and help develop materials. The first program cycle, which targeted third-year law students, saw a 250% improvement in legal writing after one year of training. Now in its second year, the program has doubled the number of participating law students, and has plans for continued expansion in the 2010–11 academic year.
In response to positive feedback, the law school dean has asked ABA ROLI to make skills training available to all law students. While ABA ROLI non-credit training will continue to expand, staff is working to develop a for-credit writing course, with plans to offer it during the 2010–11 academic year.
ABA ROLI is advising the law school on curriculum updates, with recommendations including coursework in legal writing, thought and research, as well as other electives. ABA ROLI has also proposed enhancing the school’s administrative capacity and opening a computer lab for faculty and students.
ABA ROLI’s support of the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) was augmented this year by assigning a full-time staff attorney to liaise with the bar. The staff attorney maintains an office at ABA ROLI, but also serves on the LNBA’s Executive Committee. She is currently focused on supporting the LNBA’s efforts to begin a continuing legal education (CLE) program and make resources from the skills center available to LNBA.
ABA ROLI also assists the LNBA by providing logistical support for the bar’s quarterly membership assemblies, which this year began to be held in outlying counties. The LNBA took this step to encourage the greater participation by local bars located outside of the capital, Monrovia. ABA ROLI is also supporting the efforts to open a legal library in each county.