Kenya: Lawyers Now Stare at Losses Amid Covid-19

Lawyers stare at dwindled income following the closure of land registries in Nairobi, court stations and curtailed open court proceedings.

In Nairobi County, land transactions were halted on February 18, 2020 when the Nairobi and Central registries (Ardhi House) were closed to allow auditing of land records in the county.

The closure of Makadara and Milimani law courts made the situation worse.

Lawyers earn from land transactions by offering services that include preparing, reviewing, amending and attesting sale agreements and transferring documents. They also conduct searches, advice on stamp duty and taxes, and book the Land Control Board sittings, among other services.

"Advocates are on unpaid leave as they earn from representation. When courts are not in full operation, they will continue losing jobs. Law firms will be unable to retain associate advocates and clerks," says lawyer Danstan Omari.

Covid-19 pandemic

Lands Cabinet Secretary (CS) Faridah Karoney, on March 16, extended the closure notice on land transactions for 28 days due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 29, she issued a notice for closure of registries, countrywide, for 14 days - it lapsed on May 14. Services for property situated within Nairobi County are, however, yet to be restored.

Lawyer Patrick Ngunjiri says his nine transactions for land registration of documents at the two registries have been pending since March 12.

Under normal circumstances, the process would have taken at least ten days.

"The closure has made it difficult for lawyers to honour professional undertakings issued for performance of various obligations in transactions involving land," says Mr Ngunjiri.

Ms Karoney indicated that bank charges, discharges and court orders for notices issued in February and April, would be handled at customer care centres at the registries.

Services at the Nairobi Central Registry for property outside the County are slow and almost non-existing, says the lawyer.

"While there might be need to audit land records in Kenya, it is not constitutional, justified or procedurally fair to close all services at the two registries for an indeterminate period. It would have been incumbent to carry out any audit in a phased manner," says Mr Ngunjiri.

The CS is yet to say when the two Nairobi registries will be fully opened.

"The closure of the land registries means loss or diminished source of livelihoods as members of the public, who hoped to own land or access loans from banks can no longer do so," he notes.

Fearing closure of his shop, Mr Ngunjiri moved to court last week, seeking orders to compel the CS to reopen the registries.

Court operations in Mombasa and Nairobi have also suffered disruption after some staffers contracted Covid-19. Also interrupted are the Rongo Law Courts, Milimani, Makadara and Githongo in Meru. Mombasa and Nairobi are the Covid-19 hotspots.

"The court stations in the two cities mean a lot to the lawyers and the government as they hold some of the disputes involving billions of shillings," says lawyer Danstan Omari

Most legal disputes in Mombasa involve port and cargo shipping business, mega government projects, lands, airlines and tourism as it is one of the business hubs for the East Africa Community.

Mr Omari says failure to unlock money held in disputes will have a ripple effect on the economy.

Revenue stream

"Courts are streams of revenue generation for the government in form of fines and fees. For instance, in the Waluke and Wakhungu case the government made Sh2 billion. Where will it get money to pay judges, teachers, police and other officers?" he poses.

There are fears Covid-19 disruptions will worsen existing case backlogs amid shortage of judges and magistrates, budget cuts and gradual digitisation of Judicial services.

The Judicial Service Commission yesterday suspended scheduled interviews of court administrators and accounts assistants owing to Covid-19 pandemic.

In the last financial year, total case load in the Judiciary stood at 569,859 up from 553,187 the previous year. At the end of June 2020, the highest case backlogs were at the Magistrate's Court and High Court at 245,268 and 63,443 cases, respectively.

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