What you need to know:
- A Guide to the Laws of Kenya introduces the reader to the idea of and background to law.
- The author does a good job in explaining the jurisdiction of different courts, including special ones.
When lawyers call one another ‘my learned friend’, they make the law sound mysterious. This reference excludes those around them who are not familiar with the law. It designates them as a ‘special lot’; as people with ken and skills that only a select few have.
This is partly true because, indeed, one has to go to school for a period of time, read volumes of books on law, do apprenticeship – pupilage – work hard to rise up in the ranks of fellow lawyers – the bar – and impress magistrates/judges – the bench, before they can truly be called ‘learned.’ In other words, to properly ‘learn’ law, one has to go to law school but also study it as it is practiced.
It is probably because of this nature of law that makes a few common people interested in it. Ordinary folks tend to think that law is a specialised field that would take inordinately long for them to be familiar with. Yet, they interact with it every day, every time, everywhere.
There is an element of law even in as innocuous a place as the toilet. A poorly manufactured roll of toilet paper, a malfunctioning toilet flushing system or a slippery floor can all be grounds for litigation. But many non-lawyers don’t really know the legal consequences of their behavior or relationships.
However, it is not easy to make people understand the law and how it works; or it may even be unnecessary. Why bother with the law when one can hire a lawyer in case they need one?
Maybe it is worth bothering with the law because it may be necessary to understand how the hired lawyer works and how the system in which they work, especially the courts, operate. This is why Pravin Bowry’s new book, A Guide to the Laws of Kenya (lawAfrica, 2021) is worth reading, or keeping. This is a book for students of law, lawyers and the lay person.
Questions ordinary citizens ask
A Guide to the Laws of Kenya introduces the reader to the idea of and background to law. Where does law come from? It may be made by parliamentarians, it is in the country’s Constitution (which is sometimes said to be the supreme law of the land), it can be made by judges when they make rulings, customary laws etc. Kenyan law derives from a number of sources and backgrounds.
Surprisingly, Kenyan law still draws from our colonial masters – “All English Statues in force in England as at 12 August 1897” and “English Common Law (made up of ancient customs and practices of England)!” What legal route would one have to take to ‘decolonize’ our laws!
Senior Counsel Bowry introduces the reader to how the law relates to governance by discussing the structures of as well as relationship between the Constitution, Parliament, the central government and the county governments.
What is a Constitution; how is a Constitution made; what does the Constitution say about the structure of the central and county governments; what does the Constitution say about the responsibilities of government office holders etc? These are questions that many ordinary citizens often ask, but whose answers they may not easily get.
How are courts structured and how do they work? This is one area of the law in Kenya that is least understood. A Guide to the Laws of Kenya outlines how courts are constituted, when they sit, what matters can be brought before a magistrate’s court, the high court, the court of appeal all the way to the supreme court.
The author does a good job in explaining the jurisdiction of different courts, including special ones such as ‘Employment and Labor Relations Court’ and ‘Environment and Land Court.’ Also, the author explains how a ‘constitutional reference’ is filed, which happens in case when an individual feels that their “rights or fundamental freedom provided for in the Constitution is violated, infringed or threatened.” How and where to file election petitions; what to do in ‘civil cases including matrimonial matters; alternative dispute resolution mechanism etc are all dealt with in this section.
Range of topics book covers
A Guide to the Laws of Kenya is definitely not a ‘simplified’ guide to the laws of Kenya. Is it even possible to ‘simplify’ law considering its reliance on ancient language as well as what ordinary people see as unnecessary verbosity? But this book is clearly an accessible quick reference for anyone interested in an aspect of the law in Kenya. In some parts the reader is left feeling that the author says too little on a subject. But considering the range of topics covered, one imagines the author could not elaborate on all of them.
Clearly A Guide to the Laws of Kenya is a quick guide to someone seeking to know under what legal conditions a marriage can be contracted and ended. What is needed to deal with the property (estate) of someone who is dead, and left or did not leave a will? What happens in a dispute between businesses; how are companies liquidated; where should one go to when they are unfairly dismissed from employment; what should the individual do when the state detains them without a good reason; what laws protect our rivers and lands; what protections does a worker enjoy at work against harm and injury; how does one buy and sell land; what laws guide the imposition and collection of taxes, and the consequences for not paying taxes due; what is intellectual property rights and how are they protected; how is one’s digital data and privacy protected etc?
These and many other questions on how the individual relates with thousands of laws in various places and times are addressed in the book, with references to the sources of the relevant laws given.
Still, how can such a book be made widely available to the public? Would the author, or any other person or institution in interested in access to the law by a majority of ordinary Kenyans be able to make A Guide to the Laws of Kenya freely or affordably available to Kenyans? Considering that there are very few functioning libraries in Kenya, how can a book such as this be accessible to Kenyans who may need it? Should such a book be added to libraries in high schools (where it can be an additional reading in social studies class)? Could this book be translated into Kiswahili (or some other languages spoken in Kenya)?
In a country where millions of ordinary citizens hardly speak or understand English the law and its operations will always be strange (and probably unjust) to them. Isn’t it the civic duty of the government and organizations that seek inclusive citizenship in this country to have a book such as this publicly accessible to all and sundry in a language they understand?
Tom Odhiambo teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]