By Sulaiman B. Sowa
Local Justice administration is key to resolving conflicts and settling disputes over minor domestic issues, property, tenancy, and land disputes. It is administered through local courts constituted by officials who dispense justice based on knowledge of traditions, customs and provisions of the Local Government Act of 2011.
Majority of Sierra Leoneans in the rural areas are governed by customary law which comes with many challenges including allegations of corruption. Complaints and allegations of corruption against local court officials continue to mount prompting the Regional Anti-Corruption Commission office in Kenema to engage and caution officials of the local courts of 1,2,3 and 4 in Nongowa Chiefdom, Kenema District on the need to uphold integrity in local justice administration. The engagement took place at the Chiefdom Administrative office in Kenema.
Addressing local courts officials, ACC’s Senior Public Education Officer, Sulaiman B. Sowa said the local court of Sierra Leone derives its authority from the Local Courts Act of 2011 and Section 170 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone which means that local courts are legally constituted to dispense justice in consideration of traditions, customs and culture of the community. He said that the Local Court Act has gone through several amendments aimed at restructuring and conditioning same to work in the interest of local justice administration and the people.
Mr. Sowa however said that despite many efforts to make Local Courts judicially functional, they have been plagued with many corruption issues, ranging from financial extortion, flawed judicial process, exorbitant fines and gross abuse of office. He carefully underscored the importance of upholding integrity to sustain values of work ethics required to make local justice administration functional.
Mr. Sowa concluded by admonishing local court officials to desist from all forms of corruption as the many complaints against them might just be reaching the tipping point for the Commission to take an investigation and prosecution approach.
Speaking on the some of the provisions of the Anti-Corruption Act of 2008 as amended in 2019, Investigation Officer Quinton David said customs and tradition vary but the laws governing public officers in respect of corruption were general and applicable to all.
Mr. David wasted no time to inform local court officers that a public officer, as defined by the Anti-Corruption Act of 2008 amended, is anyone working in any of the three arms of government and was either paid, unpaid, on contract or a volunteer. He said that this definition was to remind all that not being paid as public officer is not an excuse neither a justification for anyone to indulge in corruption.
He said there are many corruption offences peculiar to local court administration such as Abuse of office/Position, bribery, soliciting and accepting advantage and unexplained wealth. He emphasized that corruption offences are not always committed by unlawful exchange of monies but that the unlawful conduct of public officers too amounts to same. Bribery, he says, like other offences was not punished by the quantity received but by the improper conduct or unlawful reward of doing or failing to do an official duty.
Mr. David concluded by noting that the offences referenced are punishable, upon conviction, by a fine of not less than fifty million Leones or a jail term of not less than five years or to both fine and jail term. He therefore entreated local court officials to not only know the rules governing them but to follow them strictly.
Responding; GamangaAnsumana, Chairman Local Court No. 3 said the engagement was an eye-opener to not only seeing what the law said but how it looked in respect of the fight against corruption. He said many of the acts they had indulged in and considered normal were in fact wrong and against the law. He called out stakeholders who were interfering in their work noting that such amounted to corruption as they have been educated by the ACC to know what undue influence is.
Mohamed SannohNgorbulango, Chairman Local Court No. 4 thanked the Commission for the public education and promised to follow the rules and stay strictly by them. He called for more similar engagements to keep them on their toes.