Following the Money: Understanding Forum Shopping and the ‘Justice Marketplace’ in Sierra Leone

Published date01 June 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/09646639231195312
AuthorSimeon Koroma
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Following the Money:
Understanding Forum
Shopping and the Justice
Marketplacein Sierra
Leone
Simeon Koroma
Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh,
Edinburgh, UK
Abstract
Monetary expenses are said to prohibit poor rural litigants from accessing off‌icial justice
institutions, which are often concentrated in urban centres, thus pushing these litigants
towards customary forums. At the same time, the alternative customary courts have
been shown to cost more than formal justice institutions such as off‌icial magistrates
courts. This article examines the economics informing litigantschoices of judicial for-
ums to contribute to a new analysis beyond state-centred legal pluralism. It argues
that how money features in cases at barrays the unoff‌icial, unrecognised, customary
courts in the capital city of Sierra Leone not only explains why ordinary people engage
with (extra)legal processes, but also demonstrates how justice is understood and (re)
produced in practice.
Keywords
Unoff‌icial courts, customary law, forum shopping, Sierra Leone, barrays, justice
Corresponding author:
Simeon Koroma, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, Chrystal Macmillan Building, 15A George
Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK.
Email: skoroma2@ed.ac.uk
Article
Social & Legal Studies
2024, Vol. 33(3) 328350
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/09646639231195312
journals.sagepub.com/home/sls
Introduction
The link between the characteristics of a countrys legal system and the economic behav-
iour of its citizens is well established (Aldashev, 2009; DAoust and Sterck, 2016;
Sandefur and Siddiqi, 2013). This is especially true in many post-colonial African coun-
tries, where these characteristics involve legal pluralism the interaction of two or more
normative orders, one of which is usually the off‌icial state law operating alongside (or
rather above) customary, indigenous or religious law (Griff‌iths, 1986; Merry, 1988;
Van Niekerk, 2001; von Benda-Beckmann, 2002; Woodman, 1996). It is, therefore,
assumed that citizens are able to be selective about which aspects of the legal system
they straddle in their pursuit of justice, however, it is def‌ined. This phenomenon is some-
times known as forum shopping the decision of parties to choose one forum (over
another and potentially more obvious one) to institute or defend a suit, in order to gain
an advantage or increase the chances of winning their case (Algero, 1999; von
Benda-Beckmann, 1981; Whytock, 2011). Two somewhat opposing views permeate
the scholarship on access to justice forums. On the one hand, monetary expenses are
said to prohibit poor rural litigants and vulnerable groups from accessing formal
justice institutions often concentrated in urban centres, thus pushing them towards
rural non-formal, customary forums (Geraghty and Stapleton, 2007; Isser et al., 2009;
Sandefur and Siddiqi, 2011). On the other hand, the alternative customary courts or
forums have been shown to be patriarchal, reinforcing discrimination, especially
against women, and non-compliant with human rights (Kanyongolo and Malunga,
2018; Quinn, 2022). Few studies have examined the costs of litigating in non-formal
courts and whether or how these are prohibitive for citizens, or how they compare
with formal courts such as magistrates courts (Isser et al., 2009; Khadiagala, 2001).
Furthermore, even fewer studies have covered questions about why customary forums
exist in urban areas, where state law and processes dominate, given that customary law
is presented as a rural occurrence overseen by chiefs and traditional institutions
(Tieleman and Uitermark, 2019).
This article aims to f‌ill this gap by examining the economics informing litigants
choices of judicial forums, while detailing the monetary transactions that establish the
links between economic decisions and the specif‌ic characteristics of the chosen legal
system. By focussing on barrays the unoff‌icial, unrecognised, customary courts in
the capital city of Sierra Leone, this article contributes to a new analysis beyond state-
centred legal pluralism that sheds light on ways in which ordinary people understand
and engage with the law and (extra)legal processes. It argues that how money features
in cases at non-formal, alternative forums such as barrays not only explains the attraction
of litigants to these judicial forums, but also demonstrates how justice is understood and
(re)produced in practice.
Much access to justice literature maintains that the absence or distance of judicial insti-
tutions and legal professionals like courts and lawyers, respectively, plays a key role in
denying legal remedy to poor people (Botero, 2014; Dale, 2008; Maru, 2006). Most of
this literature differentiates between urban centres, on the one hand, where justice ser-
vices and institutions are concentrated, and where state authority is projected, and rural
areas, on the other hand, where there is a paucity of off‌icial courts and legal professionals,
Koroma 329

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