Observations from my first hearing
This week we traveled southeast of Abidjan to Gagnoa, a small city praised for its chocolate (If you are ever in Abidjan, go visit a bakery and ask for the “Gagnoa dessert”, you will not be sorry!). The reason for the bumpy three-hour trip was to attend a ceremony organized by the local tribunal to forge a stronger relationship between the judicial police officers and the Prosecutor’s office. The morning of the ceremony, I woke up early and decided to go to the courtroom to watch the last arguments of the season—judicial vacation season began this week and lasts until the end of September—and what I saw was something I will never forget. We often forget how fortunate we are to live in a system where justice is actually insisted upon. While the American judicial system is far (and I mean FAR) from perfect, the American system is at least designed to give each person a chance to adequately be defended and have his side heard in a decent amount of time. What I observed in that courtroom was a bureaucracy in action and I had no idea how to react. One by one, I watched the president of the tribunal (think Chief Magistrate Judge) call up person after person just to tell them that their case has been pushed back to a later date. Many of these people had traveled from far, gathered the last of their Francs, paid for transportation, only to walk into the courtroom to be told to come back. Thus, many of these people find no incentive to have their cases heard before the formal legal systems and most of them resort to traditional justice instead. Why travel hours to a court room only to have your case further delayed for another three months? The justice that the courts are charged to administer are not being administered and many people walk away from the formal legal system altogether. As an aside, while we were within the city, it took us 30 minutes to find the courthouse, not because it was far, but because no one in the city knew how to indicate us to the courthouse. People who had lived in this town for generations and generations, had no idea where the formal legal institution actually stood. Eventually, we did get to watch one case be argued (mostly because the attorneys had come from the capital to argue the case and asked the judge to allow them to argue). I observed some interesting comparisons to our common law system in America. Namely, prior to arguing the case, both attorneys argued on the competency of the court before whom they were arguing to hear the case. The case was a medical malpractice case where a husband accused a doctor and his hospital of malpractice after his wife died after giving birth. The attorneys argued like the attorneys we often see on television. They began by passionately asking rhetorical questions of the judge, by recounting the story and highlighting the details that favored their side, and by evaluating the evidence that convened them. It was a pretty cool experience; see the picture of the attorneys arguing below and yes, attorneys here a decked out in a full robe.