Justice system is too crucial to leave it to judges, lawyers

The recent nomination of eleven judicial officers to the Court of Appeal by the Judicial Service Commission raised questions about the independence and integrity of the Kenyan justice sector again. It is all too easy for most Kenyans to see this as a matter for lawyers and judges. Think again. Our courts, directly and indirectly, impact our lives daily and we must pay more than casual attention.

Among the eleven are some of Kenya’s finest legal minds. Dr Kibaya Laibuta stands out for another reason, he could just be our very first blind judge ever. The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) have nevertheless objected in writing citing the lack of diversity and exclusion of private lawyers from the list.

That LSK male representative to the JSC Macharia Njeru, is at the centre of the debate is significant. Njeru ran and won a spirited reform-based campaign against Dr Tom Ojienda. Key to Njeru’s campaign was a promise to fight corruption, promote the interest of lawyers, especially young lawyers and not to appear in court before any judge during his tenure as a Commissioner. It is nearly 90 days since he was elected. His voter-base must be watching keenly to see whether he and the JSC have the capacity to champion much-needed reforms.

It has been three years since that scathing and buck-passing “nifanye nini?” address by the President during the State House Governance and Accountability Summit in 2016.

The courts were in turmoil and clearly overwhelmed by corruption cartels. These cartels and their State collaborators had perfected 60 clear strategies to stop convictions in grand economic crimes and corruption cases according to the Society for International Development.

During that time, I met a very confident tender-preneur who explained how she had bribed the entire chain of court clerks, lawyers, witnesses, judges and journalists to “manage” her case.

Her only regret was that she had not bribed the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) before her case was taken to court. It would have been cheaper, she said.

The old sad adage “Why contract a lawyer, when you can buy a judge” operates on a different level in Kenya. It’s more like: Judge: “Have you got anything to offer to this Court before I pass sentence?” Defendant: “No your honour, you took every shilling.”

The ethical integrity of our judicial officers is critical to building a country that upholds justice for all and operates under the rule of law.

The JSC is a central instrument for achieving this. Chaired by the Chief Justice, the 11 members include four additional judicial officers, two lawyers, two members of the public and one person nominated by the Public Service Commission.

So powerful is the JSC, millions of shillings have been spent on recent presidential-like campaigns, flashy billboards and cocktails. A seat at the JSC has largely been seen in the past as an opportunity to influence or intimidate the grand corruption rulings and overall behaviour of judges and magistrates.

Public dissatisfaction on the terms and conditions of bail and whether State Officials can return to and govern the “crime scene” directly relates to this. Whether persons found guilty of corruption will be fined Sh1 million, jailed for 10 years or be ordered to pay tens of millions of shillings to compensate the people of Kenya has sadly been left to the discretionary sentencing of judges. In turn, most Kenyans polled on the State of Human Rights in Kenya in December 2018 now feel that there are two different laws for rich and poor Kenyans.

As the investigative and prosecution arms of the EACC, Directorate of Criminal Intelligence and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions look for ways of working more effectively, public attention must also remain focussed on our courts.

Without a strategic vision, plan and an independent CEO and secretariat, will the JSC ever manage to transform the backlog of public complaints and reduce the four-year delays? Does it still work for the JSC to be chaired and numerically dominated by judges?

How do we get more consistency and deterrence in the sentencing of corruption and economic crime cases?

These are matters also for the public to pronounce itself. The Kenyan justice system is too important to be left to judges and lawyers alone to manage.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. [email protected]