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Justice Lucy Mbugua, Kenya’s most efficient judge

Achieving Woman By Wainaina Ndung'u
Justice Lucy Mbugua in her chambers at the Meru Law Courts (Photo: Olivia Murithi/Standard)

Former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga will smile boldly and feel vindicated.

For the second time in a row, the prize for Kenya’s most efficient judge has gone to one of the founding members of Active Case Management (ACM) Committee that was Dr Mutunga’s brainchild, and started in March 2016.

Meru-based High Court Judge Lucy Mbugua was Machakos Chief Magistrate when Mutunga conceptualised the ACM to improve efficiency and resolve criminal cases speedily.

“That was a time when there was an overriding perception that the justice system was slow, dispensed delayed justice and operated in an intimidating atmosphere,” said Justice Mbugua of the Meru Land and Environment Court (LEC).

“We were asked as a committee to reform the criminal justice system and I’m happy to report that when promoted, I rolled the same mantra, objective and goals to resolving land matters,” she told The Standard in an exclusive interview.

As she relaxed in a swivel chair in her chambers at Meru courts dressed in an immaculate navy blue suit and matching shoes, she explained that Mutunga’s dream plan saw her successfully navigate the overwhelming workload. She arrived two years ago to a court handling less than 500 cases annually.

A report released by the Judiciary indicates she was the top judge in the country going by the rate of resolving filed cases. She recorded a 268 per cent rate, meaning she disposed of all matters filed in her court in the year and a surplus of those filed in the preceding years.

The report also rated Mbugua as the best performing judge in the country with 694 cases handled followed by 600 recorded at Kakamega and 223 recorded at Kisii courts.

Meru ELC was the best performing court in this category with a composite score of 2.99, followed by Migori with 3.13 and Nyandarua ELC with a composite score of 3.14.

Her court handles disputes in Meru, Isiolo and Marsabit counties. “When I came here, we had 2,000 cases and we were categorised as a court handling over 1,000 cases. I see that if we keep the tempo, it will be less than 200 cases in the next few years,” she adds.

Since the Judiciary started conducting Performance Management Evaluation, Justice Mbugua, who prefers not to speak about her family and even age, is a permanent feature in the annual report.

She won accolades for the best performing magistrate’s court while serving at Machakos in the 2015/16 year and after her appointment as a judge of the ELC and posting to Meru from December 2016, she has remained at the top.

She joined the Judiciary as a district magistrate in 1994, rising to the rank of chief magistrate with her last station being Machakos.

It was while at Machakos that the ACM was piloted simultaneously with Naivasha and Mombasa. Runaway success enabled the officers in the pilot stations to train others for a countrywide rollout last year.

“Having grown in the Judiciary, my transition was smooth and when I came to Meru, I remember handling and resolving a 1988 case and a dispute that had been in the court since 1967,” she recalls.

Mbugua said the secret to her speedy justice, which has won her accolades, was mainly because ACM offered restorative rather than retributive justice and it encourages maximum use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

“ADR ensures that not all cases go to ruling where mediation, reconciliation and negotiations can give a resolution,” she added.

Another key aspect of the ACM is that preparation of trial is a must and that enables the court to qualify preparation and quantify the workload. What that means is that in all her cases which are civil by nature, she holds a mandatory pretrial.

“That enables you to ask the parties at an early stage where they would want a scene visit, for example, so that they don’t halt the proceedings midway to ask for that. All preliminary issues are also early as are the needs of witnesses,” she said of how her court is able to quickly get matters resolved.

Watching Mbugua in court can be a marvel. Last year provided a good example when she decided to hear seven cases involving the chaotic land adjudication in Isiolo town simultaneously.

She was juggling the seven files and one could not help but marvel at how the parties represented by a battery of lawyers were being listened to. One file was being used to record the proceedings, which would then be duplicated and filed in each file.

“Since parties disclose their case early and exchange documents in advance, none has a reason to ask for adjournment when the hearing starts and I wouldn’t entertain it anyway,” she said.

Healthy balance

Mbugua said she often takes work home, but that she has a healthy balance so that she lives the rest of her life as well.

“When it gets to writing of rulings, it becomes so personal that nobody can assist you. You just got to ensure it is finished.”

She said the desire to dispense justice to the ordinary person is what drives her.

“I love my job and my belief is that as long as God has given you breath, you should utilise the opportunity as much as possible for the good of all,” she said.

She also paid a growing tribute to her workmates in Meru, including the presiding judge, peers, judicial officers and staff.

“It is in stations with dissatisfied staff that files get lost; we have never had such here,” she said.

She cites the challenge of uncompleted land adjudication in Meru north areas in Igembe and Tigania as one that overwhelms her court, which she reckons will reduce drastically when the exercise is completed.

“The transition from customary to individual land ownership contributes to the largest number of severe conflicts manifested in murder, assault and grievous bodily harm,” she said. “We have had to regularly issue production orders for people to come and testify in handcuffs from prison.”

According to State counsel Janet Kungu who handles civil litigation in Meru, 80 percent of the cases handled there are related to land in the areas where adjudication has not been completed.

“Speedy justice is just the antidote we require so that parties with land disputes do not resort to violence that is prevalent in Meru,” said Ken Muriuki, who chairs the Meru Bar Association.

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