Why Africans get a raw deal in the justice system

Story highlights

  • Afrobarometer finds that only 1 in 8 citizens reported contact with courts in the past five years
  • The study revealed that 1 in 3 people believe that "most" or "all" judges and magistrates engage in corruption

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN)High costs, unfair treatment, corruption and lack of trust are just some of the reasons Africans are struggling to get justice, a study revealed.

The report, published by Afrobarometer, a pan-African and non-partisan research network, explored access to justice in Africa and the results show that citizens on the continent generally avoid taking cases to court, with only one in eight people reporting contact with courts in the past five years.
    "All citizens are experiencing problems," said Dr. Carolyn Logan, deputy director of Afrobarometer. "Long delays in handling or resolving cases, high expense, having a hard time getting access to legal counsel and understanding the law."
    "People who are less well off -- poorer Africans -- are having significantly worse experiences with the justice system than their wealthier counterparts," Logan said.

    Low trust in courts

    Trust is one of the main reasons Africans do not go to courts, with just 53% of respondents saying that they trust courts a lot and one in three saying they believe most or all judges engage in corruption.
    The report said Africans generally trust religious leaders, the army and traditional leaders more than the courts.
    But the pattern does vary from country to country. In Niger, Namibia, Mauritius, Burundi and Malawi, more than 70% of respondents said they trust the courts somewhat or a lot, compared to less than 35% of the people in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
    Logan says these differences arise because of the overall quality of governance in respective countries, particularly issues concerning corruption. Southern Africa, for example, was the best performing region and it has very low levels of corruption.
    "If you've got a high level of corruption it spills over to other issues around the court like having trustworthy judges, having good access to legal counsel and being able to get fair outcomes in court," Logan added.

    Post-conflict countries struggle the most

    Post-conflict countries are facing some of the biggest challenges in providing access to justice for their citizens, Logan says.
    From full-scale civil wars to significant episodes of election-related violence, 14 of the 36 countries surveyed have experienced some form of conflict.
    Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been battered by civil war and each scored poorly in terms of access to justice.
    "(In Liberia) many physical structures were damaged, basic resources such as printed legal materials were destroyed," said Pewee Flomoku, head of party for the Carter Center in Liberia. "Trained personnel were lost, and corruption was widespread due to the need to survive."
    The Carter Center is a not-for-profit organization that works to improve access to justice for marginalized citizens.
    Traditional trial by village chief as judge in tribal village court, Kpelle tribe, Liberia, Africa.
    Flomoku says citizens in rural areas face more challenges, as there is less accountability and fewer courts, leading to people falling back on traditional justice.
    Access to justice is one of the targets for the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Despite having a long way to go, Logan says, real gains are possible if governments are willing to take action.
    Policemen stand guard in front of Ghana's Supreme Court on August 29 in Accra.
    She points to Ghana as an example. After a 2014 Afrobarometer report found incidents of corruption in the Ghanaian judiciary, Chief Justice Georgina Theodora Wood called for a purge of the Ghanaian judiciary and spoke out about corruption often.
    "One of the things we hope governments will do with (the findings) is look at them and see how well their system is performing in the eyes of their own citizens and to look for ways that they can improve their performance," she said.