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Turning Toward Justice

Justice is a journey in post-war Sierra Leone. People negotiate and experience the justice system differently according to their means, their gender, their status and even the place they live. The system itself is varied and complex, with many routes of entry. Aubrey is particularly interested in the relationships and contrasts between all formal and informal systems of justice. Both western and customary legal systems are recognised and practised in Sierra Leone, a legacy of British colonial rule. In Makeni, the president's home town, you find a High Court in session just a stone's throw from the court of the Paramount Chief, convened on the ground floor of his residence. Grassroots advocates, known as community-based paralegals, use their training in both systems to advise and guide people. Mamie Queens hear disputes and make judgements in the marketplace. Elected youth leaders sit on police partnership boards in an effort to improve community policing. The few lawyers who do practice in the country nearly all do so in the capital, Freetown.

When Aubrey began making pictures in Sierra Leone at the end of the war a decade ago he spent days and nights photographing young men and women who spoke about prison as having a 'revolving door'. 'We live with one foot in freedom and one foot inside.' He watched them with interest as they negotiated relationships with the police officers they also smoked weed and drank beer with in an abandoned marketplace; the same police officers who later in the night would arrest their friends for loitering or their girlfriends for soliciting. In the morning, the cost of freedom was determined by the strength of these relationships, but always at a negotiated price.

Now as then, in that same old and dirty marketplace, daubed with fresh paint, the by-laws of their community are written on the wall for all to see and abide by. Amidst seemingly chaotic behaviour - frequent outbreaks of fighting, drunkenness and abusive language and in a place known for the sale of drugs and stolen goods - there is order and self-regulation: a system with rules, penalties, and people who administer them. For the people negotiating these systems, the formal and informal structures are often connected and fluid.

Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world. In the decade since the end of the war it has taken great strides toward rebuilding the police force and implementing reform in both governance and the judiciary. However, corruption remains rife and opportunities to access justice through the formal legal system remain extremely limited, in particular for people outside the capital.

Access to justice is as much about securing basic rights and access to services as it is about holding others to account or resolving disputes.

At the end of the war the Truth and Reconciliation Commission cited widespread lack of justice and consequent impunity as major factors fuelling the decade long conflict. Access to justice matters. In the summer of 2013 Aubrey returned to Sierra Leone with Namati, an NGO dedicated to grassroots justice, to explore the range of entry routes into this varied and fascinating system.

Namati coordinates a paralegal programme to spread basic justice services across Sierra Leone. The programme draws on a frontline of community-based paralegals and a small team of lawyers. The paralegals are trained in mediation, education, advocacy and community organising, as well as basic law. During 2013, these paralegals took on around 5,800 cases, ranging from abuse of power by local authorities to accident compensation and unpaid wages. Thanks to this initiative, Sierra Leone now gives statutory recognition to paralegals as providers of justice services.
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