Students in International Law Practicum Promote Justice in Liberia

Lexington, VA • Thursday, December 11, 2008
W&L Law Audio:
Ryan Decker Describes Liberian Program Benefits

Beth Plachta Discusses Integration of Tribal Governance with Official Justice System

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The West-African nation of Liberia is just beginning to recover from the fourteen year civil war that destroyed its economy, infrastructure and legal system. Through a new international law course, Washington and Lee law students are participating in the rebuilding process up close and personal.

Four third-year law students participating in the International Law Practicum, Srikanth Vadakapurapu, Elizabeth Plachta, Jennifer Lin and Ryan Decker, travelled to Liberia for two weeks in November to experience firsthand the progress that has been made, to witness the great challenges that remain to restoring a system of justice that lacks the needed human or capital resources, and to assist in training with counterparts in Liberia.

Directed by Professor Speedy Rice, the International Law Practicum in Liberia operates in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and seeks to create greater access to justice in Liberia. To help achieve this goal, W&L law students are studying and working with Liberian lawyers and law students to develop training programs for paralegals who will be responsible for interviewing and protecting the due process rights of arrested individuals across the country, tasks necessary to enable the court system to process cases.

"The training we provided on the basic rights and laws in the Liberian Constitution can be used right away by the paralegals and prison monitors to help bring better access to justice," said Decker. "We met with people every day whose rights to due process were being violated. The prisons and the Ministry of Justice know this is happening, but they don't have the resources yet to solve the problem.  Our training program will help rebuild that infrastructure."

Before travelling to Liberia, the W&L law students met weekly via videoconference with lawyers and students at the American Bar Association clinic at the Louis A. Grimes Law School at the University of Liberia. Together they surveyed international, regional and domestic law standards applicable to Liberian detainees. Established in 1822 as a home for freed American slaves, Liberia retained many American traditions, including a legal system based on Anglo-American common law. Consequently, Liberia is one of the few nations where American legal assistance is directly relevant.

"Because the Liberian Constitution included from the start many of the additional protections brought about by American jurisprudence, the Liberian's basic rights are stronger in some sense than our own constitutional rights," added Decker.

But the long civil war nearly wiped out that knowledge. Part of the students' job is to help Liberians restore meaning to the rights they have on paper.

Assisting the practicum in Liberia was Juliette Syn '08L, who has been the project's in-country Law Practicum Fellow all semester, developing contacts with government and non-government organizations and promoting the program within the Liberian legal community.  For the spring semester, Hilary Stauffer, former human rights officer for the Israeli Mission in Geneva will be volunteering in Liberia as the W&L Law Practicum Fellow.

Also helping guide the W&L group was 2003 law graduate and Liberian native Eddie Neufville, who now practices immigration law in the Washington, D.C. area. Neufville's father, the retired Episcopalian Archbishop of Liberia, provided lodging to the W&L students in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and even surprised them with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This was one of the rare luxuries during the students' stay, during which they experienced the results of fourteen years of civil war, including, at times, no electricity or running water.

In addition to participating in the paralegal training, which involved providing an overview of basic rights as provided by the Liberian Constitution and laws, the W&L and Liberian students demonstrated techniques and methods for interviewing prisoners. The students also visited Liberian prisons and justice officials in Monrovia and Harper, a city near the border with Cote d'Ivoire.  These visits revealed the scale of the problem.

Lin and Plachta noted that of the Monrovian Central Prison's 800 inmates, twice the number the prison is designed to house, only about 50 have actually been convicted.  "The rest are pre-trial detainees who would have faced trial or been released by now if the legal system had the capacity to honor their due process rights," said Plachta.

A trip to nearby Ghana, which endured its own period of civil strife in the 1980's, gave students a glimpse of what Liberia could look like ten years from now. There students met with Africa Legal Aid to discuss their respective efforts in the criminal justice system and received great encouragement  that their efforts will eventually pay off for the Liberian people.

For now, the information the students gathered during the training and interviews will be reported to Liberia's Ministry of Justice, along with additional suggestions for expanding the training program to the National Police and for developing educational programs to help bring tribal communities, where disputes are decided by a chief, under the authority of the modern justice system.

Travel costs for the students were funded in part by W&L's Transnational Law Institute. The International Law Practicum, which also operates programs in Cambodia, Iraq, and The Hague, forms a key element of the Institute's broad array of international and comparative law programs. The Institute supports and coordinates teaching innovations, global externships, a speaker series, and visiting faculty to help prepare students for the increasing globalization of legal practice.

Five W&L students and 15 Liberian students will participate in the Liberia practicum during Spring semester, and students will again travel to Africa to help restore access to justice for all Liberians. 

Additional reporting by Ryan Decker, '09L. Photographs by Ryan Decker, Beth Plachta '09L, and Eddie Neufville '03L.

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