How Njeru has fared as lawyers’ rep at the JSC

He says rolling out e-filing and virtual sittings were a game changer

In Summary

• Macharia Njeru's five-year term will be ending in May, and he won't seek re-election 

• He says he helped set up structures and expand JSC to better deliver on its mandate

JSC member Macharia Njeru
JSC member Macharia Njeru
Image: FILE

Macharia Njeru rose to national recognition earlier in the last decade when he was the inaugural chair of the police watchdog Independent Police Oversight Authority.

In what pundits describe as the time when Ipoa had both teeth and claw — and actually used them — Njeru led the authority in standing up to what he considered a sham police recruitment in 2014, making his forceful disagreements public and demanding a repeat.

The exercise was riddled with tribalism, corruption, nepotism and political interference, he claimed.

“If we were to allow this kind of recruitment, we should not lie to ourselves that we are undertaking any kind of police reforms,” Njeru said at the time, asserting Ipoa’s place overseeing the National Police Service and the National Police Service Commission.

“In fact, what the police are doing and the National Police Service Commission, they are making nonsense of all the recommendations that have been made before regarding what we should do in taking the police service forward,” Njeru, who had sat in the Philip Ransley police reform panel, added.

Almost a decade on, Njeru is now the vice chair of the powerful Judicial Service Commission and sits in the body courtesy of the Law Society of Kenya after being voted in by advocates in 2019 for a five-year term.

With his stint at the JSC winding down, campaigns among lawyers are already ticking up, with LSK president Eric Theuri and advocate Omwanza Ombati stepping up their efforts to take over his seat.

This writer sat down with the lawyer and former executive banker to account for his time at the commission and gauge the quality of his representation of lawyers he has offered.

Q: As your tenure here winds down in many months ahead, how do you rate the quality of input you have brought aboard?

No one worth his salt rates himself because that should be the job of other people who should oversight me. I have brought enormous experience to this job. I’m a former chairman of Fina Bank Rwanda (now GT Bank Ltd), previously served as director of Fina Bank Uganda, Fina Bank Kenya and board member of Kenya Airports Authority.

Of course, as a founder chair of Ipoa, my record is out there. I built the institution from scratch, putting up the foundational administrative and organisational structures, which are the core of its operation and success.

I’m also a lawyer of long standing, having practised for more than three decades now.

Here at the commission, since I joined four years ago, together with my colleagues in a team approach, we have been hard at work in setting up structures, that is, rolling out the commission as a corporate entity that can depend on itself in terms of personnel, technical expertise and shoring up the quality and professionalism of its work in overseeing the Judiciary.

In a collective manner, and as chair of the strategy committee, we have developed the strategy of our operation and we now have a strategic blueprint guiding our work so that the operations of the commission is foreseeable and monitorable.

Q: I understand that you cannot oversight yourself, but I guess the question is, with your term ending, what are some highlights of your stay here that you can tell those who gave you the mandate?

All lawyers, and indeed Kenyans, have stakes in a Judiciary that is well-functioning. An efficient Judiciary that upholds the rule of law is not just good for lawyers. It is also a constitutional imperative in the interest of the public, that is why it is not good to over-focus on lawyers.

I have been part of various committees of the commission tasked with key assignments, which we have managed to deliver on well for the people. The JSC never had a strategic plan, and we have delivered on it.

We have also reorganised the structures of the JSC, such as directorates and departments, which have seen the commission become fully fledged to flying with its own wings. We now have directorates of IT, communication, finance, legal as well as complaints and investigations. Imagine that the commission had never had its in-house mechanism for receiving, managing and investigating complaints against judicial officers and had to depend on other state players.

We built the case for having a fully functioning complaints and investigations directorate so that complaints against our judicial officers are not only handled in a professional and accountable manner to ensure they are properly oversighted but also, they get accorded a fair, professional and accountable way of clearing their names whenever a complaint is levelled against them. Also on communication, and other essential functions, the commission used to depend on the judiciary for staff and support. Not anymore.

Regarding space, I came to the commission and found it housed at Re-Insurance Plaza in a tiny space that barely afforded it a suitable environment to work. We have since moved to the CBK Pension towers and we have adequate space. My skill in setting up organisations and ensuring their competent establishment has served the commission, lawyers and the public well because a delivering commission is in the larger public good.

You asked about my deliverables for lawyers, and I think the commission’s human resource intervention in ensuring efficient judicial service would answer the question directly.

This commission has seen the highest rate of hiring of judicial officers, with a huge proportion being practising lawyers. It has been a huge cry among advocates that the shortage of judicial officers to hear matters has been hampering the delivery of justice, translating into case backlogs and frequent adjournments.

I promised during my campaigns that this would be top on my agenda once I’m seated at the commission. Most importantly, I promised that while hiring judges, lawyers in private practice would be given consideration so that advocates get more opportunities.

As a commission, we have hired 20 environment and lands court judges, 17 of whom were lawyers from private practice. We have also hired 10 judges for the employment and labor court, all being lawyers from private practice. We also employed 20 High Court judges, 14 being from private practice.

Also, we hired 16 Court of Appeal judges to expedite the hearing of appellate matters. We have now advertised for 20 more High Court judges and additional judges of appeal may be hired when some necessary processes are concluded. For magistrates, we hired a batch of 65 and an additional 70, totalling 135. We are set to hire another set of 70.

Furthermore, as part of ensuring judicial efficiency, this commission has ensured that judicial officers have adequate facilitation to do their work. Judges and magistrates used to complain that they do not have adequate support staff. We have hired over 700 court assistants and IT assistants to support this core function.

Moreover, delivery of virtual hearing of matters was core to my campaign promise. This is another milestone I’m very proud about. As a commission, we had this ambition in mind way before Covid-19 struck. The pandemic was just an accelerant to this.

We rolled out e-filing and virtual sittings. This has been a game changer in expediting the hearing of matters because a magistrate in Mandera can hear a matter filed in Mombasa because their salaries are the same anyway.

Even more revolutionary in this regard is the rollout of the small claims courts, which is accelerated by Chief Justice Martha Koome’s vision of Social Transformation through Access to Justice. She’s been excellent in this because even during the interviews, she was the only CJ candidate who raised the issue of small claims court and gave a clear vision of how to implement it and what potential it held.

I must stress that these courts have a unique capacity to boost our economy because they have a quick turnaround, just 60 days, adjudicating disputes for business entities and individuals.

These small disputes are the ones most Kenyans grapple with, not ones with huge sums of money, and the courts help unlock the monies quickly. Also, it is giving business to lawyers and this was part of my promise to advocates, to fight for opportunities for them.

Q: There has been some disquiet between the JSC and advocates, with the latter complaining of disrespect by some commissioners during some recent field trips. How do you connect with the constituency you represent as part of a feedback loop?

You know right now is campaign time and a lot can be said by people having interests so that they get attention and score points. The field trips across the country were during court inspections, and a lot of good and positive energy emerged from it. The incident being talked about by the fringes was a minor issue and it was addressed very well. I don’t want to focus on non-issues, just on the good work we are doing.

I connect with lawyers every day. It is my policy that I pick phone calls and return them if I miss one. Many people, once elected to an office, change phone lines and become inaccessible.

For me, I remained accessible to lawyers and the commission has treated advocates as stakeholders whose input and feedback is crucial. I’m not a fan of organising bureaucratic townhalls or any other avenues that make getting authentic feedback difficult.

In a day, I receive between 30 to 50 phone calls and I give time to each. So, I can say I have the pulse of lawyers and have been responsive to any matter that arises.

Q: What about the concern that the commission has been doing a lot of unnecessary court inspection tours, carrying along with them bloated delegations at huge expense to taxpayers, considering the economic strain everyone is feeling?

The court inspection tours have been helpful in getting to interact with judicial staff and court users at the grassroots. We were in two teams; I led the team covering the Eastern region that included Central, Upper and Lower Eastern and Coast region.

Commissioner Olwande covered the Western part that included Rift Valley, and we did a good job. We got feedback from our officers, which is central to driving the judiciary forward.

We also observed that although there are teething systemic challenges, our officers are patriotic and are making the best they can in the circumstances to serve our people. We will work on a detailed report soon.

But you know there must be some elements looking for bad things even where there is a good output, but we ignore them.

No one can dictate to us which of our staff we should carry along to these important engagements. The tours were organised by the secretariat and every commissioner had to be facilitated to carry out their work effectively.

Q: So far, in terms of specific campaign promises to advocates, how far are you in fulfilling them, with some months to go?

I have seven more months in office. I can say I’m on a good course in implementing the commitments.

Besides the milestones I have listed, I promised my colleagues not to engage in private practice of law as a JSC commissioner. I even uttered an affidavit to signify my seriousness in upholding this commitment. I have kept this promise because there is an ethical question and conflict of interest when I appear before a magistrate or judge whom I participated in hiring and am oversighting.

People just need to be decent human beings and do the right thing. I hope you challenge those running for this seat to uphold this precedent.

Also, I promised not to seek a second term. I’m capable of running again and winning with a landslide, but I will not do it because I’m a decent man who keeps his word.

I’m a senior lawyer who will have a lot of things to do, and it is critical to serve and give space for others to come and do it as well.

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