Six years after a civil war that killed 250,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands more, justice is at the top of Liberia's list of needs. But in this small West African country of 3.5 million, the problem isn't a lack of courtrooms or trained lawyers. Liberia is wanting for the actual laws themselves. The country's legal code doesn't exist in print except for a few mismatched volumes here and there, sequestered in incomplete sets in libraries in the capital, Monrovia. And right now, as far as legal advocates can tell, even Liberia's national parliament doesn't have a full copy of the law.
Why not? Because the few volumes that do exist have been quietly copyrighted -- and subsequently held ransom -- by the man in charge of Liberia's legal reform. Across the country, lawyers, courtrooms, and even the government are operating blindly; it's impossible to be certain if they are following a legal code they don't have.
The man who has literally taken the law into his own hands is Philip Banks, appointed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as chair of the country's law reform commission. He served twice as Liberia's justice minister, first during an interim government in the 1990s and again under Johnson Sirleaf beginning in 2007.
In between his stints as justice minister, Banks led a team of lawyers, a group called the Liberia Law Experts, to codify the country's newest laws. The project, which picked up where an earlier pro bono effort by late Cornell University professor Milton Konvitz had left off, won just over $400,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), according to e-mail exchanges between Banks and key legal players, obtained by Foreign Policy. Konvitz had codified laws up to 1978, just before Liberia plunged into 20 years of sporadic conflict. Those volumes list the copyright as belonging to the government of Liberia.
Defending himself in an interview with FP on Oct.27, Banks says he numbered, bound, and indexed the newer laws -- intellectual work that he claims as his original property. Without his efforts, he claims, Liberia's laws would exist only in loose-leaf pamphlets and would likely be lost. Banks says the DoJ funding wasn't enough to cover his costs. So when DoJ declined to give him more, he asserted a claim of copyright on the work, according to an explanation of the issue he sent by e-mail to a justice sector consultant in 2006. It's a claim he has appeared willing to relinquish several times for sums between $150,000 and $360,000, according to the e-mail exchanges, which were obtained by FP.
But Banks sees the copyright as an altogether different tool. "These are resources that you've had to expend in putting all of this together, and the question is, should you be compensated? I hold the view that you should," he asserted in his interview with FP. "And for folks that have said, no you shouldn't, I've said to them, go and get your loose-leaf." DoJ, meanwhile, couldn't find records of its agreement with Banks, but a spokesperson says it would be "highly unusual" for the department to have agreed to let Banks retain the copyright.
Banks claimed during the interview that he is willing to give up the copyright for "zero," but that others in his team of Liberian lawyers want more money. Critics in Liberia say Banks is the problem. "There's a lot of blame and name-calling and passing the buck," says Anthony Valcke, a British lawyer working in Liberia on rule-of-law issues.
Either way, the consequences of the dispute are being felt across Liberia, whose courtrooms and parliament are operating without copies of the law. "Look at all the work that's being done in the government, anti-corruption, legal aid, NGOs, all those who work as watchdogs over the acts of the legislature. None of these organizations -- none of them -- have copies of the laws," says Valcke. "It's so fundamental to a democracy that it's unbelievable that this situation has been allowed to exist for so long."