Kenya: Ouko Says Appeal Court Acutely Understaffed, to Prioritize New Appointments as CJ

Nairobi — Appellate Judge William Ouko Wednesday said that staffing at the appeal court has been critically affected by the failure to appoint 41 judges listed in 2019 who include 11 appellate judges.

The Court of Appeal President was the eighth candidate to face the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) which is in the process of recruiting the country's next Chief Justice, the third under the 2010 Constitution.

Responding to a question by Commissioner David Majanja, Ouko confirmed that his court was understaffed with only twelve judges who available, adding up to four 3-judge benches.

The court once had 27 judges, most having retired and others deceased. Ouko said he and two other appeal court judges were mainly handling administrative matters hence the reference to twelve as opposed to fifteen appeal judges.

"My court has felt the brunt of it, when I joined we were 27 and work was smooth and we didn't have to sit the way we are sitting now when I talk about what we go through, it's really from my heart," he decried.

If appointed the CJ, Ouko said he will re-look at the issue and grievances raised about the judges with the JCS and negotiate the issue with both the executive and legislature.

"There ought to be a way out, I will come back to the commission, this is where it started, retrace our steps and find out where the problem started," he said.

Ouko told the nine-member JSC recruitment panel that he will establish a clear communication channel with the Head of State and resolve such issues with ease.

"As head of the Judiciary the CJ has some structured channels with the President and if there is none, it will be for me to develop one. The government has three legs like an African stool and if one is short, one cannot sit comfortably on that stool," he told the panel.

President Uhuru Kenyatta failed to appoint the Judges who were recommended by JSC in July 2019 for appointment to the Court of Appeal, the Environment and Land Court and the Employment and Labor Relations Court.

The Head of State cited integrity issues as the reason he'd declined to make the appointments.

Appearing before the Prof Olive Mugenda-led JSC panel, Ouko who has 33 years of experience in legal practice, said his qualifications and training in court will enable him to move judiciary to the next level.

"I believe that with my qualification and training in court administration and with all the things I have done in the judiciary, I am capable of moving this institution from where it is to another level," he said when responding to questions by Prof Mugenda.

When asked on slow reform process in the Judiciary, Ouko said that while working under former Chief Justices David Maraga and Willy Mutunga, the implementation of various blueprints was not well coordinated and therefore slowed down judicial activities.

He noted that the blueprints were replicated and that there was a lack of priority and coordination on key reforms.

"I do not see a focused approach. I think there is a bit of disruption because we are coming up with too many other things. If you look at the policy document we roll out, which are meant to further the reforms, they take us off," Ouko who was appointed to Court of Appeal in 2013 noted.

He further cited budgetary cuts as another hinderance.

"Money has been a big issue in Judiciary even though there was an increment in allocation , the Judiciary has grown in number and activities, this is not enough, money is a critical part of reform in Judiciary," he said.

Ouko described himself as a democratic leader with some aspects of authoritativess.

"I am democratic and my colleagues at Judiciary can attest. No decision is made in court from my office alone, everything we do in that office we do as a team. Although there are times when you have to be authoritative and insist that what you think is best for the team is what has to be done," Ouko told the panel.

Ouko was admitted to the roll of advocates in 1987, briefly worked at Mbogholi Msagha and Company Advocates for a few months before joining the Judiciary as a district magistrate and rose through the ranks within two years to become a Deputy Registrar of the High Court in 1989.

In 1997, he was promoted to Judiciary's chief court administrator, a position he held until 2002 when he became the registrar of the High Court.

His first breakthrough as a superior court judge came in 2004 when he was appointed by retired President Mwai Kibaki as a High Court judge and later to the Court of Appeal in 2012.

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