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The Legal Framework

Haiti's legal system reflected its colonial origins. It had a French structure superimposed on a traditional African-Caribbean society. Although Haiti was founded by former slaves, it lacked the parallel or indigenous legal system often found in modern Africa. The legal framework followed the structures and the procedures of French and Roman legal systems. It included local courts, justice of the peace courts, courts of first instance, courts of appeal, and the Court of Cassation (Supreme Court). But the system had little relevance for most of the population. The more senior members of the court system catered to a small urbanized business clientele. The lower echelons of the judicial system employed poorly trained individuals who were likely to be influenced by political and financial pressures at the local level.

Because Haiti was a rural nation, land law and local civil and criminal procedures were of much greater relevance to the majority of the population than were decisions posted by the senior courts in Port-au-Prince and a few larger towns. French was the official language of the legal system, however, even though most people living in rural areas spoke only Creole (see French and Creole , ch. 7).

Judges in Haiti were often subject to intimidation, and the entire legal system suffered from a lack of administrative and financial capabilities. Many local courthouses were destroyed during or after the 1986 collapse of the Duvalier regime. Few facilities have been rebuilt.

The Duvalier regimes had selected most of the country's judges. Post-Duvalier governments faced the daunting task of selecting credible judges to preside over courts at all levels. This process had barely begun as of 1989.

Except for brief periods in Haiti's history, military officials controlled the country's legal system (see Army Politics: Force and Counterforce , ch. 9). As a consequence, an equitable and functioning judicial system was still largely an abstraction for most Haitians. The army or paramilitary groups, with political or personal motivations, arbitrarily fulfilled law-enforcement functions.

Problems in the country's legal system originated in Haiti's skewed experience with its constitutions. One of the first goals of Haiti's early leaders was to establish law and order while organizing a new government. The solution adopted by figures such as François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri (Henry) Christophe, and many of their successors emphasized executive authority along with limited civil or technical administration. A judicial system and municipal powers became extensions of central authority. This arrangement ensured military presence at all levels and branches of government. Incompetence, graft, and violence complicated this structure. One observer, writing at the turn of the century, noted that "Haiti is governed by generals in all sizes."

In 1936, two years after the departure of the United States Marines, Haitian president Sténio Vincent drew up a new constitution that provided a legislature and a judiciary wholly dependent upon the whims of the executive branch (see Politics and the Military, 1934-57 , ch. 6). The new constitution stated that "the government makes the constitution, the laws, the regulations and agreements."

Haitian law required that detainees appear before a judge within forty-eight hours, except when they were arrested in the act of committing a crime or when they were detained pursuant to a judicial warrant. In practice, however, prisoners frequently spent long periods in jail while they awaited trial. The absence of a bail system also led to lengthy pretrial detentions. The law further required officials formally to file charges against the accused at least two weeks before trial. The accused had the right to meet with an attorney before trial, but had to pay for it. The state provided no free counsel to the indigent.

Arraignments and trials took place in public, and defendants had the right to be present at their trials. Overall, the criminal justice system suffered from backlogs, the intimidation and influencing of jurists, and the population's widespread reluctance to serve as jurors.

Data as of December 1989

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