Land Issue; When Law Enforcers Flout Court Orders

By Basita Michael & John Baimba Sesay 

Land issues in Sierra Leone have gained much of public attention in recent times. Through the course of 2018 and 2019, there were few but strong public interest cases surrounding the legality of claim to land between several individuals, businesses and that of other state entities. The Minister of Land and Country Planning, Dr. Denis Sandy for one, has on several occasions taken actions on land that attracted much controversy and to many people an action they opined is nothing short of disproportionate, a disregard for law and order and a flagrant abuse of office.

The incident between the Minister of Lands and Country Planning and former Minister Diana Konomanyi is one of those examples. It could be recalled that the former ordered excavators to demolish fence on a land along the Freetown Peninsula road allegedly belonging to the latter. Another incident also took place along a piece of land on Spur Road in Freetown where excavators were ordered to demolish all fences and other constructed properties on site the land. This time again, Dr. Sandy was the Minister behind the order. In the case of the second example, it is believed that the owner of the property had a land title deed of 1949 giving private ownership to the subject. However, notwithstanding the title deed, there was also an additional injunction by court to prevent the said demolition of the property which the Hon. Minister of Lands disregarded.

The arbitrary demolishing of fences and other constructed properties – whether done by state civil servants or private citizens, has one unique characteristic – the presence of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) on site. Many eye witnesses have reported sighting law enforcement agencies on site in land matters. In most cases, it is by virtue of execution of court orders that warrants the presence of police on those sites, mostly to secure Bailiffs who are engaged in the eviction process. Also, people have encountered police on site many land cases that do not have any legal warrant from the High Court. This begs the question: What exactly is the role of the police in executing court order around land cases? Can the Police take actions on land issues without valid court order and/or can they also decide not to take action even with a court order mandating it?

Head of police media, Superintendent Brima Kamara in an attempt to answer such questions said, “…when there is a legitimate order from the court in respect of title/claim to a piece or pieces of land for one party to take possession of the property/land; owing to the conviction of the Court that that party owns the land/property, the lawyer(s) go(es) through the Under Sheriff’s Office for an execution of the Order of the Court. The Under Sheriff then has to inform/contact the Sheriff informing him about the order and the need to execute the order. The IGP has a constituted team headed by a very senior police officer who looks into those issues by directing for a threat assessment to be done.” The threat assessment, Kamara said, would normally inform the situation on ground and recommends what could be done to have a threat-free execution of the order of the Court.

But why would the police sometimes fail to carry out execution of court orders? Kamara could not comment on specific matters but had this to say:  “So many factors could be responsible but key among them is the report of the threat assessment. If the execution of the order required X amount of personnel to provide security for the bailiffs and the scene, and we do not have that required strength at a given time, due to the multiple jobs we’re involved/engaged in on a daily basis, we would have to wait for the appropriate time, when we now believe the personnel/manpower needed for providing security for the execution could be provided without having to halt or jeopardize other important functions we perform on a daily basis.”

Let’s start with a classic example of a land case involving the property of the late Onipede Cline-Thomas nee Carlton-Carew situated at Thompson bay off Carlton-Carew road/Wilkinson road, Freetown. This particular case narrates the frustration that law abiding citizens of Sierra Leone experience when they rely on the SLP to execute court judgment on land matters. In this particular instance, the case on property of the Late Onipede Cline Thomas had been in court for over two decades (22-years precisely). After 22 years of legal battle by the trustees of the land to claim legal ownership of the land the High Court of Sierra Leone on two separate occasions ruled in favor of trustees of the property of the late Onipede Cline Thomas Nee Carlton-Carew. 

On the 13th June 2014 judgment was delivered in their favor by Hon. Justice Browne-Marke. Also, on the 14th March 2016 another judgment was delivered in their favor for another portion of their property by Justice A. B. Halloway. Both judgments were followed by the issuance of a writ of possession to be enforced by the Sheriff/Inspector General of Police. However an execution of the writ of possession on the 22nd January 2016 was not completed as the police and bailiffs withdrew from the execution without having completed same. On the 27th January 2017 another attempt was made by the police and bailiffs but that too was not completed. There was no court order staying the execution of the judgment or any valid reason why execution of the judgment could not proceed as ordered by the High court of Sierra Leone.  Acknowledging that the police have somehow failed and the bailiffs have on two occasions failed to execute the writ of possession, the Attorney representing the trustees on the 19th April 2017 commenced contempt proceedings against the Sheriff/Inspector General of police who at that time was I.G Munu. The court found on the 27th June 2018, the sheriff I.G. Munu guilty of criminal contempt.

The present Sheriff, Richard Moigbeh, was then ordered by the court to carry out the execution within 21 days. Again, Moigbeh, following in the footsteps of his predecessor failed to carry out the execution within the stipulated 21 days.   

The Lawyer for the trustees of the estate of Onipede Cline Thomas deceased reported the case to the Anti-Corruption Commission asking for their intervention in carrying out the order of the High Court by the Inspector General of Police. The ACC sent a letter to the police headquarters acknowledging receipt of the letter of complaint dated 18th December 2019 asking the police headquarter to investigate the said matter, take necessary action and to provide an update to the commission.

On the 30th December 2019 the Anti-Corruption Commission sent a letter to the Chief Justice asking the judiciary to address the issue using normal administrative process. On the 9th January 2020 Police Headquarters sent a letter to the Anti-Corruption Commission acknowledging receipt of the letter dated 30th December 2019 and stating the constraints faced by the police in executing court orders. In the letter the police stated that “As a result of the lessons learnt from the Sierra Block Factory eviction, we decided to review our approach to court orders now guided by thorough threat assessments indicating the level of threat the police and bailiffs are likely to face during the execution”.

Without exactly stating the actual circumstances surrounding the Sierra Block Eviction, the police seem to have assumed that the outcome of the Sierra Block Eviction would be the same for the property of late Onipede Cline Thomas. It is disappointing that having learned from the Sierra Block Factory Eviction, they still had not developed any modus operandi to evict illegal squatters from land pursuant to valid court orders.  What made the issue even more complicated according to Police was that “…..according to our information the matter was in court for 22 years until 13th June 2014 when judgment was given… the overall threat level is extremely high and the complicated situation makes it very difficult for bailiffs and police to execute the court order.” The complicated situation the police are referring to are the construction of several illegal properties on the said land which includes churches, mosques and other corrugated metal sheet make-shift houses (pan-body). Whilst it is understandable that a small illegal community had been established on the said land and therefore making it extremely difficult to evict the people as mandated by court, what is hard to understand is that after six years since the court order was given, the police have still not been able to come up with a good strategy to execute the court order and in a manner that would not promote any “stiff resistance” from the community in question. What makes this type of situation worse is that the Under Sheriff has over 50 court orders that the Police are refusing to give the necessary assistance for execution of the orders.

Conrad Carlton Carew, a trustee of the land said he had made an appeal to the president but was convinced, people at State House have been giving wrong information to the president that the land in question is densely populated, “which is not true.” On the police, he believes they are not doing what they are supposed to do and “if you are talking about the rule of law, I don’t see how the police can refuse to carry out an order of the court. The law is the law. You cannot be on the side of the perpetrators.”

This case study points to a serious red flag within the SLP to execute a valid court order in favor of plaintiffs who have been successful in court proceedings. This also sets a bad precedent and undermines the security of the state on two separate fronts. First, it portrays the judicial system as being very weak to serve justice and secondly it highlights the police as being incapable of maintaining the law and order and enforcing valid court orders.

President Bio at the Cabinet retreat issued a promissory note on 2020 as a year of Service Delivery. The Sierra Leone Police Force must ensure they deliver on that promissory note by fully assisting the undersheriff to carry out the orders of the courts of Sierra Leone.

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