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February 18, 2019

Petty Matters Clogging Justice System

Who, between the police and the National Transport Safety Authority sets the fines for traffic offences?

Despite the publication of a list of traffic offences and corresponding fines, the traffic police at Milimani Police Station, claim not to have been copied in the memo.

The traffic officer who boldly told me to quote him, and not the police force, a certain corporal Kimani, insisted that I pay a fine of Sh5000 instead of the published Sh3000.

“That is just PR (public relations) that those guys are doing,” Cpl Kimani said.

I had been booked for making a right turn onto Ngong Road. Apparently, it is illegal although there is no discernible sign.

According to Cpl Kimani, when you commit a crime, there are no two ways about it, the police will do their job.

I did not mention that the arresting officer on motorbike had tried to extort Sh2000 from me before I insisted on paying the fine and getting a receipt.

I paid and was given a court date. A white gentleman who had the published fines on his smartphone, flatly refused to pay the Sh5000 insisting on the Sh3000. The police shrugged and told him to suit himself. They had his car keys anyway.

There remains far too many grey areas in the law where citizens are being exploited.

Incidentally, I had come from Kibera Law Courts on assignment.

The story of the justice system in this country as seen from that visit leaves a lot to be desired.

In fact, it can be said the cruel hand of the law is made purely for the sake of oppressing the oppressed.

I have not been to other magistrates’ courts but Kibera is impressive in many regards.

First, it has a catchment area of 21 police stations who daily make the morning journey to bring offenders to court.

This covers a huge part of Nairobi, Kabete, Ngong, Kiserian, Magadi and almost to Narok.

Annually, it handles 17,000 cases but determines about 14-15,000.

These are mainly petty offences like drunken and disorderly, sexual offenses, gender violence and so on.

The petty offences hearings are a study in routine. Everyone pleads guilty to having been drunk and disorderly, and everyone is fined. Those who can pay do so, those who can’t are either given ground duties or remanded depending on the nature of their offence.

Impunity begins in the morning. For starters, those arrested overnight are not sure of what they are to be charged with as they are rarely shown the charge sheet until they are shepherded into court, handcuffed in pairs.

Three fellows who were arrested drinking at a bar not licensed to sell beyond 11 p.m. were shocked to hear their charges read out to them.

They were being accused of selling alcohol past hours. They had to pay Sh20,000 each as fine.

Paying for bail is equally not easy.

For some strange reason, one can only pay at the KCB branch at Prestige.

There is no MPESA till number nor Airtel money. So if you can’t raise the money from family and friends quickly enough for you to get to Prestige and deposit and rush back to the court to present the deposit slip, Industrial Area Remand Prison beckons.

Many of the accused are also not represented by legal counsel.

This prejudices their cases especially where they may plead guilty without knowing that they cannot later appeal.

And while the cause list for the list of cases up for mention or hearing is readily available, there is no such list when judgments or sentencing is to be done.

So many remain in limbo or at the pleasure of the overworked magistrates as to when their cases may be determined.

Because even the judicial officers who work in the court largely regard the petty offenders brought from overnight arrests as unjustified and emblematic of police abusing their powers, it seems logical enough that it is this case load that should be dispensed with to allow magistrates deal with real cases where victims and offenders wait too long for judgments.

As long as officers like those traffic police who arrest people on a whim have ready courts to entertain petty matters that can be dispensed with administratively or through use of technology, the wheels of justice will move very slowly for those who really need judicial services.

Mbugua is a communications consultant and comments on topical issues.

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