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CJ Martha Koome: I wrote to the President and, voila! things happened

NATIONAL
By Kamau Muthoni | September 3rd 2021
Unclogging the wheels of justice: Chief Justice Martha Koome. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

"I just wrote a letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta on June 3, 2021, asking for an urgent meeting. The letter detailed three issues; administration of justice, operationalisation of the judiciary funds and the budget allocated to the judiciary," Justice Koome says of what she terms her simple but effective ice breaker between the Judiciary and the Executive.

After the letter, however, the President did not call for a meeting with her. Instead, the head of state gazetted the appointment of 34 judges. This happened just a day after Justice Koome sent him a letter.

"This was on June 4. It was a bittersweet moment. I thanked His Excellency and pleaded with him to similarly appoint the remaining six judges,” she tells me during an interview at the Supreme Court's boardroom.

The Judicial Service Commission (JSC), under Justice Mutunga, nominated 25 judges to be appointed by the president. However, only 11 were appointed. And this was after 11 months of their appointment. The remaining 14 judges had to wait for a year.

And by the time Justice Maraga was retiring, 40 judges were on the waiting list of appointments.

According to her, her predecessors Willy Mutunga and Justice David Maraga did the wiring for the justice system; she is now plugging it into place.

During the interview, Justice Koome had a notebook, a copy of the Constitution and an Ipad, items she constantly referred to as she responded to questions.

And as she marks 100 days since she took over office, Koome offers a glimpse of it feels occupying the hot seat, especially as the first woman to do so in Kenya. She terms unlocking the two-year stalemate over the appointment of the judges as an important step towards enhancing access to justice.

She told of a consultant pocketed Sh45 million only to hand the Judiciary a one-line recommendation that the Judiciary needed its police unit to enhance the security of judges and court premises.

Chief Justices Willy Mutunga and David Maraga left lamenting that from what they had seen, heard and felt, Kenya was heading south. They also acknowledged that the CJ's seat is hot. Mutunga would sum it up by terming Kenya's a "bandit economy". Maraga complained of how his calls to State House were ignored.

And when she took over in May, Koome says, she just walked to the Office of the President and by the time she was leaving, a contingent of 3,000 police officers had been attached to the courts, permanently.

To appreciate how much is needed to be done to make courts what they are supposed to be, Justice Koome visited Kisumu during this year’s Madaraka Day celebrations. She was able to get the correct picture of how horrid the Judiciary she had inherited was.

But before that trip, Koome came face-to-face with the deplorable state of the Supreme Court, where she sits. The roof of the court that was built in 1935, to house seven judges only, is leaking. Koome says the toilets too are not enough. 

There were only 11 judges in the Court of Appeal. The court had suspended its sittings in Kisumu, Mombasa and Nyeri for two years following the stalemate on the appointment of judges.

At the Environment and Labour Court, the situation was worse. The only judge available in the region was covering Kisumu, Siaya and Nyamira counties. Meanwhile, the Judiciary has just 5,000 employees out of an expected staff establishment of 9,000.

Koome's predecessor left clinging on hope the Judiciary would get at least Sh90 billion to keep the wheels of justice oiled. In the 2016/2017 financial year, Maraga asked for Sh23.3 billion and in the subsequent year, asked for Sh35.9 billion.

Last year, he had sought Sh31.1 billion. In the end, he only got half of what he had asked for.

And by the time Maraga was leaving office, the 2021/2022 budget was nigh and he had asked at least Sh75 billion, which is 25 per cent of the Sh3 trillion budget.

On dispensing justice, Koome says the director in charge of data had told her the number of cases filed has gone up since she took charge, an indications Kenyans are confident with her leadership.

She says the number of cases judges and magistrates are determining has also increased.

From May to July this year, at least 77,725 cases were filed. Over the same period, 70,875 were resolved. Most of the cases, (87 per cent) were filed at magistrates’ courts and nine per cent at the High Court.

 The bulk of the matters that were resolved (or 81 per cent) were dispensed with at the magistrates’ courts while 13 per cent at the High Court.

Koome now wants judges and magistrates to clear all cases before them within three years. Maraga’s timeline was five years.

“In all my meetings with them, I have always said the power that resides in the office of the Chief Justice has been delegated to all staff and they should therefore discharge their functions knowing they are ‘chief justices’ in their own right,” Justice Koome said.

She sits right in the middle of two flags, Kenya’s and that of the judiciary.

And on the recent cases of arrest of judges, Koome says while judges too can sin, they should not be dragged and shamed by being arrested inside courtrooms or their chambers.

She says she has sought dialogue over the procedure that should be employed while arresting judges and magistrates. Sleuths will now be required to go to the JSC, and after giving evidence, the suspect will be required to answer the claims before the commission can allow their arrest.

This follows an embarrassing moment after some judges were confronted by detectives in their chambers. Court of Appeal judge Sankale Kantai has already sued the Directorate of Criminal Investigations over his arrest which her has termed embarrassing.

High Court judges Aggrey Muchelule and Saidi Chitembwe were arrested on court premises.

“This was an unfortunate event as judges and judicial officers ought to be accorded the necessary respect that comes with their offices and the judicial functions they discharge,” Koome says.

She added: “It is in this regard that we have engaged the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government and we have developed a clear protocol to be used by criminal investigative agencies when they need to interrogate and process any judge or judicial officer.”

Meanwhile, Koome disputes that feminism has taken over the judiciary. She told critics to accept the wind of change. 

On corruption, Koome says there will be no sacred cows.

"Graft cases should be determined faster," she says.

What does she want to be remembered for? Enlightening Kenyans about their rights, showing them how to resolve cases without necessarily going to court and enhancing their access to justice is what Chief Justice Martha Koome. And she has many plans in place to achieve this. These have included making efforts to end the bad blood between the Judiciary and the Executive.

She also wants to build a new headquarters for the Judiciary and establishing a training institute that will sit on 55 acres in Ngong.

Justice Koome also wants to make sure all courts are digitised before she calls it a day. These efforts have been bolstered by Google which has pledged Sh100 million for the digitisation project.

Chambers dripping with history

The chambers of the Chief Justice are rich in history. Very little has changed in the Supreme Court building where the aisles to CJ reception have the same deep yellow paints they had when they were constructed. A wooden clock and portraits of former CJs are lined up on the wall.

Sir Robert William Hamilton served from 1905 to1920. William Barth, Joseph Sheridan, John Harry Barclay, Harace Hector, Kenneth Kennedy and Ronald Ormiston too have their place on the wall of the Judiciary.

One of the most unforgettable ones is Sir John Ainley, who was the first Chief Justice in independent Kenya. He presided over the swearing of founding President Jomo Kenyatta and served up to 1968.

Then, Arthur Dennis Farnel took up the mantle serving only for two months, from May to July 1968.

Farnel occupied the office of the Chief Justice for the shortest period in Kenyan history. He got himself into trouble with authorities when he reduced the one-year sentence passed on to Bildad Kaggia to six months. He was hounded out of office in July 1968 and replaced with Kitili Mwendwa, who left office in 1971 after being implicated in a coup attempt.

Other CJs are James Wicks, Henry Simpson, Chunilal Bhagwandas Madan, Guyana-born Cecil Henry Ethelwood Miller, Robin Winston Hancox, Fred Kwasi Apaloo, Abduh Majid Cocker, Zacchaeus Chesoni and Evan Gicheru.

On the right of the door to Koome's office is a portrait captioned ‘wind of change’.

In an 18-page document titled "33 years of Unwavering Service to the Public", Koome promised to build an accessible, efficient and independent justice system, and continue transforming the judiciary.

She is clad in a silver-coloured coat punctuated by a small patch of gold. Her watch strap is also silver-coloured.

And you wouldn't miss a black hair clip in the form of a flower.

As has been the tradition, Koome's successor will also place a portrait of her in the hallway when she exits the seat. She will be launching her vision next week.

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