Freetown, Baby!


Justice within reason by mabrajeux
July 16, 2010, 12:24 pm
Filed under: public life, society | Tags: , ,

As I try to keep up with UK news here in Salone, I read with interest of recent plans for court closures in the UK. The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced on the 23rd of June that 157 out of 530 courts in England and Wales would be closed. So far, so normal in the political and economic context… But it also caught my attention because of the parallel it draws with some of the issues I have encountered here in Sierra Leone.

In my job as a legal consultant I have been going up country to learn about how victims of sexual and gender based violence can access justice, finding out from police staff, prosecutors, judges and local NGO workers how things can be improved for the victims of such violence. One of the most prominent issues that was highlighted is literal, physical access to justice, or rather, to the places where justice can be granted.

Which brings me back to old Kenneth’s plans. Of the 157 courts destined for closure, 103 are Magistrates Courts, which deal with less serious offences and are based on the idea of proximity. Hence, rather than rely on the old court organisation which reflects “how far it was reasonable for a man to ride a horse”, the Justice Secretary thought it more adequate to ponder “how far it was reasonable for a man to travel in a mechanised vehicle.” Guidelines for the court closure plan apparently take as a benchmark of ‘reasonable’ travels an hour on private transport or two hours on public transport.

Transport is also a big issue for victims of crime in Sierra Leone. Victims of sexual abuse who do not live in the capital will have to travel to the district capital first to report and obtain medical examination, but then also for every subsequent hearing at the Magistrates’ Court, which can often be adjourned numerous times… And every time, the victim must pay for the transport for herself but also for any witnesses she has for the case, as well as accommodation and food for the both of them.

What’s more, roads in the country are often in poor condition and even when they are not, they can be incredibly muddy and treacherous, especially in the rainy season. In fact, many organisations involved in sexual and gender based violence reported a sharp drop in cases being reported during the rainy season, because people cannot leave their house / village to travel to the capital of the district, where the police station, the hospital and the courts all are…

I guess here in Sierra Leone, the issue is even more complicated than “how far it is reasonable for a woman who has been raped to ride a motorbike on a muddy bumpy road.”

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