Justice Negotiators—Makeshift
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For certain legal grievances, no judge or courtroom is needed to resolve

— Justice Negotiators

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In post-war Sierra Leone, ‘justice’ is a journey. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. A civil war ended more than a decade ago, but what little formal justice there was before the fighting proved hard to rebuild. Corruption influences all elements of the judicial system, and access to justice is as often a negotiation as it is a mandated legal process. Sierra Leone is the kind of place where paperwork gets done by hand, villagers come together to decide an offender’s fate, and vestiges of colonial governance still linger. Who you are and where you’re from matter. Formal and informal justice remain connected with a fluid and careful bargaining in which outcomes often have a negotiated price.

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Outside the capital, official courtrooms are either absent or slow to sentence. In the town of Makeni—birthplace of the president and the largest urban center in the rural northeast—what little courtroom justice exists tends to be outpaced by decisions made in the local community. A stone’s throw away from the High Court, the Paramount Chief convenes a customary court on the ground floor of his residence.

In much of the region, if a juvenile is wrongfully detained or farmland is taken from a widow, such victims of injustice have nowhere to turn. In Sierra Leone, a project to spread basic justice services across the country draws on a frontline of grassroots advocates, community-based paralegals who walk alongside plaintiffs and defendants on their justice journeys.

The paralegals, who have in patience and practice what they lack in formal legal training, hear many disputes, provide advice, and fill in other legal blanks left by a lack of lawyers, who largely eschew provincial towns for better opportunities in the capital. This informal sector, working across the country, bridges the formal and informal justice traditions, resolving almost 6,000 cases in 2013. Through ongoing training and direct ties to the communities, this progress gives some hope for ushering in a new standard and new options for making justice more regularly accessible across Sierra Leone.

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