LSK must reclaim its stature as the driver of the reform agenda
By John Mburu
Those who remember the struggle for multiparty democracy in the 1980s will tell you that the Law Society of Kenya played a vital role in defeating the one-party dictatorship.
The role played by eminent LSK members like Paul Muite, Pheroze Nowrojee, Gibson Kamau Kuria, Martha Karua, GBM Kariuki, the late Mirugi Kariuki, Gervase Akhaabi, Gitobu Imanyara, Lee Muthoga and others was instrumental in forcing the Moi regime to accede to a multiparty system in 1991.
In the 1990s, LSK continued to play a vanguard role in driving reform and defending the rights of the mwananchi. Whenever the LSK issued a statement of its position on any important national issue, the political elite shook in their boots. So influential was the LSK’s opinion on any matter that former President Moi frequently attacked the lawyers’ body ‘for playing politics’.
LSK was pivotal in driving the Inter-Party Parliamentary Group (IPPG) reform initiatives in the late 1990s that had far-reaching impact on the country’s quest for a just, open and democratic society. LSK joined the then vibrant civil society in clamouring for a new Constitution.
With such impressive credentials, LSK has potential to be the foremost institution in the country driving the reform agenda. Among professional bodies, it occupies a pre-eminent role given its track record not to mention the unique role played by its members in the society.
However, LSK has lately been a pale shadow of itself. That it has been accused in some quarters of not being assertive enough on key national issues is testimony to its changed fortunes.
Some critics have gone further to depict LSK as a partisan institution that is partial to certain political interests. The organisation’s leadership has sometimes been seen to be openly taking sides in political disputes between the PNU and ODM sides of Government.
Whereas the Judiciary has been infused with unprecedented reform vigour as seen in the radical restructuring of our court system, LSK has failed to seize the opportunity to drive judicial reforms.
The backlog of pending cases remains a major problem, causing immense suffering to litigants most of whom are poor Kenyans seeking justice. Case backlogs have also negatively affected the practice of the legal profession in Kenya as seen in the frequent protests by lawyers.
Most of these problems are attributable to leadership failure at the LSK. If anyone doubts that it is a leadership problem, just look at what Chief Justice Willy Mutunga is doing to the Judiciary.
Until he became CJ, the Judiciary was constantly derided as corrupt and inefficient. In the short time he has been in office, Mutunga has managed to restore the credibility of the Judiciary. In addition, the Judiciary under Mutunga has perhaps been more assertive and independent than at any other time since independence.
Given the momentous change the country is undergoing, LSK urgently needs to re-invent itself in order to remain relevant and respected.
The time is now for LSK to re-assert itself as the pre-eminent driver of the national reform agenda. It should be providing direction whenever issues emerge around the implementation of the Constitution. The LSK’s voice must be strongly heard in national debates albeit in a constructive way.
The lawyers’ body must reclaim its rightful role as the defender of the ordinary mwananchi’s rights. It must project itself as the defender of the public interest. For instance, LSK can spearhead civic education to help Kenyans fully understand how the new Constitution will change their lives. That role cannot be left to civil society alone.
In addition, LSK should do more to tackle perennial problems afflicting the justice system such as the huge backlog of cases in our courts. This it can do in collaboration with the reform-minded Judiciary headed by Mutunga.
There are also emerging challenges facing the legal profession that require urgent solutions. With the number of lawyers rapidly rising by the day, there’s need to ensure that professional standards and ethics are upheld.
There’s also need to re-evaluate the way complaints against advocates are dealt with to ensure justice for all the parties involved.
Technological change has also thrust certain challenges upon the legal profession. For example, increasingly sophisticated fraud calls for a continuous review of the law of evidence.
The legal profession has to adopt modern ways of doing business especially in light of global fight against money laundering, narcotics trafficking and terrorism. Technology can help in this regard especially in protecting genuine clients from such criminal activities by flagging these when they occur.
It is notable that outside the banking system, lawyers hold arguably the largest amount of money, which is held in trust for their clients. There is therefore need for legal practitioners to fully embrace Know-Your-Customer requirement just like banks so as to protect their firms and clients from money laundering activities.
Technology can also give impetus to efficiency of the judicial system. LSK can drive this, too.
With LSK elections around the corner, the lawyers’ body requires a new kind of leadership. A leadership that is visionary, bold, honest and non-partisan. Only then can LSK redeem itself in the eyes of the public.
The author is an Advocate of the High Court and a council member of the Law Society of Kenya.
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