"We don't get much sleep now because there are people calling night and day," says Jesco Davis, who represents the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), a local NGO partnering with the US-based Carter Center and helps Liberia's overwhelmed judiciary by resolving cases out of court and teaching citizens about their basic rights.
The JPC includes a network of Community Legal Advisers (CLAs) who provide alternative dispute resolution. In a typical day, Davis, who represents the Commission in Ganta town, some 270km northeast of the capital, Monrovia, will speak on behalf of a man he believes was wrongly detained for illegal trespassing, visit the local police station and magistrate's court, and give updates on a convoluted land dispute to a rapt audience in a local tea shop.
Land disputes are particularly prevalent in Ganta and the surrounding Nimba County, where poorly funded local authorities struggle to deal with competing land and property claims. Many of the disputes are war-related, with people displaced by conflict trying to regain property lost when they fled their homes. Adjudication is often difficult due to lack of documentation and conflicting oral testimony. "You do not mess with this land business," Davis said.
Liberia's long-running civil war ended in 2003, but most people are still coping with the legacy of the conflict.
Davis and his colleagues on the JPC offer hands-on help to ordinary citizens by providing alternative dispute resolution (ADR), which brings together parties in conflict to defuse tensions and propose practical solutions to problems that they believe can be resolved without being taken to court.
"We need community advisers who are non-confrontational," said Lemuel Reeves, a senior legal associate with the Carter Center (TCC) who has years of experience in law enforcement and criminal investigation.
Reeves stressed the need for common sense and compassion, solid legal knowledge and good social skills to deal with cases out of court. "Advisers need to avoid all the technical vocabulary and give [people] concrete examples they can relate to," he told IRIN.
In a village outside Ganta, a boutique owner, Kou, said her husband had stopped being unfaithful and abusive after the intervention of Eleane Keamue, an adviser with experience in social work. Esther, another villager, said Keamue's advice had helped resolve a property dispute with a man she had lived with for 13 years.
The advisers and their professional mentors from the TCC concede that gender-based violence and rape are a challenge to the court system, which is ill-equipped to handle such cases, as well as to community advisers, who want to defend women's rights but know that a lengthy legal process is likely to be traumatic and demoralizing.
CLAs emphasize their amateur status and seek to collaborate constructively with other legal actors, but still encounter hostility from judges and other court officials. One reason is the advisers' willingness to seek the refund of bonds left with magistrates by those going to court, but which are often withheld when a case is finalized.
"The judges [and magistrates] fear that we are there to harm them, to interfere with the judicial system, which we are not doing," said Keamue.
Reeves, who lectures to CLAs on key aspects of the law, acknowledged that there are still substantial flaws in the way the police and courts operate in Liberia. For example, police routinely violate the law in the way they conduct arrests, despite receiving extensive training in legal rights and procedures, but there have been improvements. "The gap between what should be happening and what happens in practice is smaller than it was six years ago," he noted.
In 2006, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, warned in a report that a "decade of war pulverized what was already a dysfunctional system", and noted a number of negative indicators and observations.
Among the shortcomings highlighted were a weak and underfunded legal infrastructure; magistrates with little or no legal training; a corrupt judiciary seen as an appendage of the executive, still operating with impunity and hostile to change; and a desperate shortage of recognized legal texts. Hundreds of prisoners remain incarcerated with no proper charges drawn up against them, and no prospect of a prompt trial.
However, both Liberian and foreign legal experts point out that significant improvement has been made in recent years. The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has run a Legal and Judicial System Support Division (LJSSD), besides its more publicized work on security sector reform and striving to build a credible national police force and army.
There has been a strong input of external expertise, with partners including the Carter Centre and the American Bar Association. The Arthur Grimes Law Faculty at the University of Liberia has been bolstered, while the James A. A. Pierre Judicial Institute has been set up to provide better training for magistrates.
Organizations like the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia, and the JPC, which faced an uphill battle in addressing shortcomings in the justice system under former president Charles Taylor, can now operate in a more sympathetic environment. The Ministry of Justice and other institutions, like the National Bar Association of Liberia, have become steadily more flexible in accepting the need for change, particularly in areas like women's property rights.
A series of regional legal offices are being set up, bringing together judicial facilities and an expanded police service in regional centres like Gbarnga, the capital of Bong County, 160km northeast of Monrovia. These new "hubs" are meant to provide citizens with better access to the courts and police, although there are still major concerns about the police's lack of resources, with officers frequently lacking fuel or vehicles to carry out investigations.
There are hopes that a pilot probation service will reduce the prison population, a sensitive issue for the government, which responded angrily to rights group Amnesty International's September 2011 report on the state of the country's prisons.
Low public confidence in the formal justice system - seen by the population as inefficient, expensive and intimidating - has made many people seeking justice turn away from the courts and choose the traditional justice system, presided over by a hierarchy of chiefs that fall under the jurisdiction of the Internal Affairs ministry. Liberia's constitution recognizes customary law, which is "compatible with public policy and national progress" and is "adopted and developed as an integral part of the growing needs of the Liberian society".
Reeves argued that the importance of customary law, which emphasizes respect for elders and community solidarity, should be acknowledged. However, there are some concerns about practices such as "trial by ordeal", in which suspects are judged guilty if visibly harmed in a physical test, for instance by drinking a poisoned beverage, or placing a hand on a dangerously hot metal object.
The JPC has been promoting its work across the country, with advisers trying to get to remote areas, meet ordinary citizens, explain their legal rights and offer alternative ways of resolving disputes.
"To get the messages across, I give out flyers, I go around with a megaphone, I will go to talk to the motorbike [taxi] boys," said Theodosia Borbor, a CLA in West Point, a bustling, overcrowded district of Monrovia with poor housing and a high crime rate.
"People want to know about these things - our justice system is okay, but it is only on the page for now," Theodosia told IRIN, stressing that much needs to be done in enforcing the law and reassuring citizens often baffled by legal procedures.
Ansuama Fayia, a legal adviser working in the northern region of Lofa, said the JPC's work is not limited to minor cases - advisers sometimes step in to try to defuse situations that could lead to public violence. Fayia said it was easier to settle disputes if more people were aware of their legal rights.
"When you don't know the law, it is like not knowing your left from right."