The Formal Legal System
Due to its dual colonial past, Cameroon has a unique legal system in comparison to most countries around the world. The majority of the country follows a civil law system (or a legal system based on strict codified law), inherited from the French colonial administration in the Francophone sectors of the country. However, in the two Anglophone regions, the judicial system adheres to common law tradition, or law that respects and follows tradition and binding legal precedent. Despite the opposing legal traditions, the country has a unified court system. Each region has a trio of courts of first instance: customary court, magistrate court (often simply referred to as the court of first instance), and high court; the number of each courts varies according to population and resources in each region. Appeals from all three courts are then channeled into the appeals court, which sits at a regional level. From there, cases are appealed to the Supreme Court, which sits in Yaounde.
The jurisdiction of the courts of first instance are relatively straightforward. Customary court deals with minor disputes, witchcraft, civil matters at a 50,000 CFA limit of judgment, and traditional matters such as marriage, which vary from tribe to tribe. However, most customary laws, which are protected by guidelines in the Sec. 27 of the Southern Cameroon High Court Law (1955), remain unwritten, presenting considerable problems in uniformity and clarity. Magistrate court handles labor matters, civil disputes up to 10 million CFA and criminal matters that are either classified as simple (a sentence of 0-2 years) or misdemeanor (0-10 years). Finally, the high court hears settles civil and labor disputes with judgments from 10 million CFA upwards and specific financial issues (bank checks, bounced checks, promissory notes attached to debts, etc.). It addresses criminal issues involving felonies and misdemeanors that are attached to felonies.
In terms of judicial distribution, there is technically supposed to be one magistrate court in each subdivision and one high court in each division. However, due to lack of governmental funds and general judicial disorganization, some subdivisions and divisions are devoid of the appropriate judiciary. Other times, the judiciaries of several divisions might be all located in the same place, such as those for Kumba (which are coincidently all sitting at the city’s High Court).
The appeals court hears all appeals from customary court, magistrate court, and high court, in both civil and criminal matters. None of its decisions are final, except those concerning lawyer’s fees. Meanwhile, the supreme court only hears matters from the supreme court, with the exception of litigation arising from electoral malpractices. The Supreme Court also has jurisdiction over administrative and military courts.
In the recent years, several harmonization acts have transformed the Cameroonian legal system. These harmonization acts attempt to reconcile the differences between the civil and common law systems by creating a unified code for criminal procedure, penal matters, labor issues, and business matters under the Organization of Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA) Uniform Act, which has brought these nations under common commercial laws. While some lawyers and legal scholars welcome such harmonization and unification, others reject the attempts because they occur at the expense of the Anglophone common law tradition.
The Traditional Legal System
In addition to the formal legal system as described above, Cameroonian justice is also administered at a local level by traditional councils (set forth by Law No. 74-23, passed by the Cameroonian Parliament on December 5, 1974). Based in the country’s rural villages, these councils are local, decentralized public authorities that hear and mediate minor disputes in the community. This judicial body operates under supervision by the state, but it still has legal personality and financial autonomy. The council dispels justice in accordance to local traditions and customary law, yet its decisions are not legally binding and dissatisfied parties can proceed to take their grievances to the formal justice system.
The local system of justice is divided in two levels: the Quarter Councils and the Traditional Councils right above them. The Quarter Councils resolve disputes in their respective village quarters, while the Traditional Council acts both as a court of first instance as well as an appeals court for unresolved issues from the Quarter Councils. The Councils’ principal responsibility is the provision of affordable and easily accessible justice in matters of their competence (mostly land disputes and minor money issues) for the population of their village. These rural populations are mainly composed of peasants and farmers. However, the Councils’ responsibilities are not limited to its judiciary authority; due to the nearly complete absence of the State at local level, in fact, the Village Councils are highly influential on the life of the community. Their authority extends to the regulation of the society; for example, in every village security is guaranteed by a group of volunteer vigilantes selected by the village chief and the Council, furthermore, the traditional councils collect money from the community members in order to finance their activities, such as development projects (fixing roads, water supply, etc).
Challenges Facing the Cameroonian Legal System
Like those of most African and developing nations, the Cameroonian justice system faces several challenges:
Insufficient manpower- Cameroon suffers from want of experienced technocrats who could serve in the necessary roles of the justice system.
Insufficient funds- Underlying the lack of proper staffing is the lack of money to provide an expansive judicial infrastructure and to salary an educated, qualified legal staff.
Inexperienced judiciary- According to the civil law system, judges and magistrates attend judicial school and receive specific training for a career on the bench. Oftentimes, graduates from these schools are hired right away to serve as officers of the court. Their lack of experience can jeopardize sound decisions and leave them vulnerable to corruption.
Lack of proper legal divisions- Since all legal matters are channeled into the same courts, the Cameroonian legal system has become congested and slow. In order to speed up justice, legal divisions, primarily between civil and criminal matters, must be put in place to ensure an easy flow of justice.
Lack of public defense system- The Preamble to the Cameroonian Constituion stipulates that all citizens have the right to a fair hearing before the courts. However, a fair hearing cannot exist when an accused man or woman can’t afford legal counsel and is instead forced to stand in court without representation or adequate knowledge of the law. Furthermore, the gross overcrowding of the police/gendarme cells and the prisons often result from a preponderance of unlawfully detained persons. If there was a public defense system to take on such cases, the poor conditions of the prisons and jails would be somewhat alleviated.
Sources: Cameroonian Constitutional Law