The Resident Circuit Judge of the 15th Judicial Circuit in River Gee County, George W. Smith, calls for amendment of Articles 20(b) and 66, respectively, of the Constitution of Liberia to establish regional courts of appeal across the country that would speedily hear appeals from lower courts of record.
He says having courts of appeal in the legal system is important for the economy as it will address issues affecting the business climate in Liberia, including challenges to resolving insolvency faced by banks and businesses, and challenges to enforcing business contracts, stressing that of these two, enforcement of contracts is cardinal, as trial courts are daily engaged in the resolution of cases involving breach of contracts.
Article 20 (b) of the Constitution reads: The right of an appeal from a judgment, decree, decision or ruling of any court or administrative board or agency, except the Supreme Court, shall be held inviolable. The Legislature shall prescribe rules and procedures for the easy, expeditious and inexpensive filling and hearing of an appeal.
Article 66 of the Constitution says, “The Supreme Court shall be the final arbiter of constitutional issues and shall exercise final appellate jurisdiction in all cases whether emanating from courts of record, courts not of record, administrative agencies, autonomous agencies or any other authority, both as to law and fact except cases involving ambassadors, ministers, or cases in which a county is a party. In all such cases, the Supreme Court shall exercise original jurisdiction. The Legislature shall make no law nor create any exceptions as would deprive the Supreme Court of any of the powers granted herein.”
Delivering his Charge at the opening of the February Term of Court in River Gee on the topic, “Courts of Appeal, A Key to Speedy Disposition of Cases – A Desideratum for Good Business Climate in Liberia”, Judge Smith notes that the ease of doing business in Liberia is a prerequisite to good business climate, as it encourages businesses to invest in the Liberian economy, and the Country enjoys economic prosperity and development.
“Unfortunately”, he observes, “the World Bank Ease of Doing Business in 190 of the world’s economies (2019) shows that our Country Liberia ranks as the 18th lowest.”
The World Bank has identified several key indicators relative to the ease of doing business in 190 countries, including (1) the challenges to getting credit or loans from banks and other financial institutions by businesses and other individuals; (2) The challenges to resolving insolvency or bankruptcy of businesses whereby the Court decides whether or not to relieve an insolvent – bankrupt or broke – business of its debts owed to creditors; and (3) The challenges to enforcing contracts between banks or other financial institutions, as lenders, and businesses and other individuals, as borrowers.
Judge Smith calls for the establishment of five (5) regional courts of appeal across the country, notably in Grand Gedeh County, Bong County, Margibi County, Montserrado County and in Monrovia, respectively.
He says the KEY to speedy disposition of cases requires the establishment of courts of appeal in the various judicial circuits of Liberia, but notes the call is not new, as the Liberian legal profession and others have continually advocated for the establishment of courts of appeal.
“We are well aware that the Supreme Court’s docket is exceedingly overcrowded; the Supreme Court is overwhelmed with influx of appeals from our trial courts of record; party litigants from far-away circuits do not take advantage of their right of appeal to the Supreme Court due to time and costs of travel to the Supreme Court all the way to the Nation’s Capital City of Monrovia; and bad lawyers do abuse the right of appeal to the Supreme Court by filling unmeritorious and frivolous appeals calculated to “hang” or keep cases in abeyance”, he observes.
He says these are challenges with which the nation’s courts are confronted in the speedy disposition of cases, but stresses they can be surmounted by Liberians taking the courage to establish courts of appeal in the country.
He argues that the jurisprudence or philosophy of establishing a court of appeal is that the decisions of this court, with a 3-penal judges sitting, would be final because there is no right of appeal to the Supreme Court, as appeal to the Supreme Court, is only granted by leave or permission of the Supreme Court and not because the appealing party has the right to appeal.
With courts of appeal established here, the Liberian Supreme Court, like supreme courts in other common law jurisdictions with courts of appeal, will then focus on its original jurisdiction and may only hear appeals of very important cases of public interest, such as those involving the Constitution, election matters; and capital cases like treason, armed robbery, hi-jacking, terrorism, murder and other capital offences.
Judge Smith: “Some may argue that Liberia is too small and there is no money for the creation of courts of appeal in Liberia. I do not think this is a strong argument against the establishment of courts of appeal in this Country with a population of 4.7 million and an area of 43, 000 sq. mi.”
He counters that the good business climate, investment and economic development benefits that will accrue to Liberia with the establishment of courts appeal clearly outweigh the ‘Liberia-too-small and no-money argument.’
He cites as examples, The Gambia with a population of merely 2 million and area of 4,363 sq. mi. has a court of appeal and the American States of Connecticut, Oklahoma and Kentucky with populations of 3.6 million, 3.9 million and 4.5 million, respectively, having courts of appeal.
He maintains that on the issue of money, the creation of courts of appeal will bring money to Liberia because cases, including those relating to the enforcement of contracts, will be disposed of expeditiously; thus creating a good business climate for investment and economic development, cautioning that businesses will not be encouraged to invest in a country where they will spend much of their time and money prosecuting or defending cases in court.
Meanwhile, Judge Smith reveals that nine (9) cases are currently on the trial docket for the February Term plus summary proceedings from Magisterial Courts in the county. Story by Jonathan Browne