Legal issues in Sierra Leone can be traced during the British colonial period in 1807, when the country hosted the first Vice Admiralty Court in May 2, 1807 to adjudicate cases of captured foreign vessels involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The Country also served as the Chief Administration of the British West Africa states of Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and the Gambia and on the 15th December, 1910, the foundation stone was laid for the Chief Justice Chambers what is today known as the Law Courts Building.
The Judiciary of Sierra Leone has metamorphosed since independence in 1961. After independence in 1961, the first Sierra Leonean substantive Chief Justice was Sir Salako Benka-Coker.
Sir Henry Lightfoot Boston had acted as Chief Justice pre- independence and before he became Speaker of the then Legislative Council, the precursor of Parliament. He became the first Sierra Leonean Governor-General after Sir Maurice Dorman retired in 1962. Sir Salako was succeeded by Sir Samuel Bankole-Jones. In 1966 he was appointed the first Sierra Leonean President of the Court of Appeal in succession to Mr. Justice Cecil Geraint Ames.
Post 1961 and before 1971, the person appointed Chief Justice was the most senior Judge on the High Court (then called the Supreme Court) bench. And the Chief Justice was the person who acted as Governor-General in the absence of that personality. So, even though the President of the Court of Appeal heard appeals from judgments given by the Chief Justice, the latter was still head of the Judiciary. This was perhaps a left-over from the pre-independence days when appeals from High Court judgments were heard by the West African Court of Appeal, a bench of substantive but peripatetic Judges drawn from the then British West African colonies: Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia; and then after the dissolution of that Court by the Sierra Leone and Gambia Court of Appeal. Appeals from those Courts went to the Privy Council in the UK, the final Court of Appeal. After Sir Samuel went up to the Court of Appeal, the next most senior High Court Judge, Mr. Justice C. Okoro E. Cole was appointed acting Chief Justice. Early in 1967, Justice Okoro Cole was abruptly removed as Acting Chief Justice and was sent to New York as the country’s Permanent Representative (now, Ambassador) to the UN. He replaced Dr. Gershon Collier, who on his return to Sierra Leone was appointed Chief Justice. This was clearly unconstitutional as he had not sat on the High Court Bench.
A lawyer, T. S. Johnson actually challenged his appointment in Court though the case was never heard, as the military took over political power soon afterwards, and formed the National Reformation Council (NRC). The NRC appointed the then Speaker of Parliament, Mr. (later, Sir) Banja Tejan-Sie, as Chief Justice. He remained until 18 April, 1968 when the NRC was itself overthrown by enlisted men in the army. Justice Tejan-Sie oversaw the orderly transfer of power to Mr. (later, HE Dr.) Siaka Stevens 13 days later, and he became Acting Governor-General. Justice R. B. Marke was then appointed Acting Chief Justice but he died in August, 1968. Justice Okoro Cole was recalled from New York and was appointed acting Chief Justice, and later Chief Justice.
On 19 April, 1971 Sierra Leone became a Republic, and Justice Cole became its first ceremonial President. Mr. Siaka Stevens remained Prime Minister. Mr. Justice J. B. Marcus-Jones, then a Justice of Appeal was appointed Chief Justice. Two days later, on 21st April, 1971 Mr. Stevens became 1st Executive President. Justice Cole reverted to his position as Chief Justice.
A Supreme Court was established as the final Court of Appeal. Appeals to the Privy Council were abolished. Thereafter, appointment to the office of Chief Justice no longer depended on one’s seniority on the High Court Bench. As under the 1961 Independence Constitution, responsibility for judicial affairs rested with the political head, i.e. The President, and before that, the Prime Minister. Just before the passing into law of the 1978 Constitution, an Act was passed to amend the 1971 Constitution. Responsibility for judicial affairs was transferred to the newly created office of Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Between 1961 and April, 1971 the office of Attorney-General had been a public office.
As of 21 April, 1971 the holder became a Minister with Cabinet rank, though still not responsible for judicial affairs. After, 1978, the holder of the office acquired responsibility for judicial affairs. There have been calls for the two offices to be separated and the CRC has so recommended.