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Social Transformation through Access to Justice | Notes from a Lecture by Kenyan Chief Justice Martha K. Koome

March 20, 2023

“Why law? What do you want to do with it when you’re done learning? We’re going to be talking to you about access to justice. Why justice?” Justice Philomena M. Mwilu’s opening address was a call for both individual and collective introspection.

On March 7, 2023, NLSIU was privileged to host Justice Martha K. Koome, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya, and Justice Philomena M. Mwilu, Deputy Chief Justice and Vice President of the Supreme Court of Kenya.

Deputy Chief Justice Mwilu spoke of the political and constitutional history of Kenya since the country’s independence in 1962, up to the passage of the 2010 Constitution. Underlining Kenya and India’s common colonial legacy as well as shared contemporary concerns, she said: “Back home, we look to India for guiding principles in jurisprudence.”

This emphasis on the close ties between the two countries was echoed by Chief Justice Martha Koome, who delivered a lecture titled ‘Championing People-Centred Justice in Kenya to Secure Social Transformation through Access to Justice’. Chief Justice Koome referred to the migration of Indians to Kenya during British colonial rule and their recent recognition as the 44th Kenyan tribe.

She went on to outline her vision for a judiciary that is “independent, efficient, accessible, responsive to the aspirations of Kenyans, and a true guardian of the rule of law.” Here are some highlights from her lecture:

On the relationship between Kenya and India:

“We share a very close relationship with India…. Kenya has many tribes and Indians are one such Kenyan tribe.”

“[In India] you have developed your own systems, your own system of democracy that responds to the aspirations of the people, your own strong institutions and developed your own jurisprudence, grown from your own analysis of your own problems. For us, under this [new] constitution, the expectation is that we must also develop our own indigenous jurisprudence, and to have our own unique progress.”

On the role of “people-centred justice”:

“People-centredness is huge in our constitution. We are one of few countries that have managed to review and reform their constitution. Moreover, we came up with a constitution that replaced an old constitution…. It is our evolution that replaced one constitution with another. We were able to have a peaceful review and promulgation of new constitution. It wasn’t easy, it was a lot of sweat, and struggle—people lost their lives in that struggle, but eventually we ended up with the 2010 Constitution.”

“The people are sovereign. They give their power to the judiciary to decide their cases…. We judges work on behalf of the people.”

“This comes in an era where the whole world is yearning for inclusiveness and sustainable development. To attain inclusiveness, we must include people in making decisions that affect them.” “It is inclusive and sustainable development that creates a conducive environment for everyone to flourish and realise their potential. Wherever you are, you want to develop yourself. It is therefore important for all sectors, including the justice sector, to ask ourselves how we can contribute and facilitate the dream of our people.”

“Social and economic crises, which have dramatically altered societies around the globe, continue to ensconce us to unimaginable inequalities. The moment we are in the cause for justice, we also connect with the rest of the world. Justice is a cause that affects everybody. Everybody wants to experience justice. Everybody wants to experience fairness.”

On barriers to accessing justice:

Many people in Kenya face a range of barriers to accessing justice. “What was most shocking was that only 10% of our population are able to access formal justice…. These barriers include costs, complexity, judicial processes, the long time it takes to solve a case, geographical distances…and also that our justice system does not always respond to the unique needs.”

On the wider role of the judiciary:

“How are we reaching the people? How are we transforming the people? We cannot just transform the judiciary unless we transform the people. Unless we empower them so people are able to grow and enjoy their rights. Within this vision, we focus on the poor, the marginalised, the youth, the children and women, those less empowered to access justice. To this effect we have embraced a shift from the top-down approach to a bottom-up approach that focuses on people’s justice needs and wants, removing barriers to access to justice and prioritise evidence-based decision making, collaboration amongst stakeholders, investment in game-changing initiatives, and rebuilding trust in the justice system.”

On how a people-centred approach can help realise social transformation:

“We are of the view that by putting in place a people-centred justice system, we will be contributing to social transformation that our Constitution directs all the organs [of the state] and all persons in Kenya to work towards.”