What you need to know:
- Justice Ouko started his career as a district magistrate of the second class after his admission as an advocate in 1987.
- He rose to the office of Chief Court Administrator and was appointed High Court Registrar in 2002.
Justice William Ouko’s candidacy to the office of Chief Justice is not an ordinary one. It is not just about his personal hopes. Any judicial Officer of whichever level must look to the candidacy of Justice William Ouko with some level of personal interest and excitable sentiment. If Justice William Ouko were to emerge after the series of interviews as the Chief Justice-designate, then it would be an affirmation for all judicial officers that it does not matter where you started, only your ambition and personal motivation will be your limit.
William Ouko, the holder of a Bachelor of Laws and a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice, started his career at probably the lowest judicial office in the judiciary as a District Magistrate of the second class just after his admission as an Advocate in 1987.
Justice William Ouko then pivoted from judicial duties as a Magistrate to the largely managerial and administrative role of Deputy Registrar of the High court in 1989. He rose to the office of Chief Court Administrator and was appointed the Registrar of the High Court in 2002. The Registrar of the High court was then the highest administrative role within the Judiciary of Kenya, being that he was the chief accounting officer for the judiciary prior to the constitution of 2010.
Judicial service administration
From the pinnacle of judicial service administration as Registrar of the High Court, William Ouko went back to judicial duties proper on his appointment as a High court Judge in 2004. While in this role, his management acumen was revisited when he was tasked to lead a Task Force on Judicial Reforms in 2009. In 2012, Justice Ouko was appointed to the Court of Appeal and elected by its Judges to become its president in 2018.
The report of this taskforce carries his name: The Ouko report on judicial reforms. Though it was not his sole efforts, as chair, he deserves attribution for its recommendations and effects. Core to this was an admission that the Judiciary as an institution fell short of the legitimate expectations of the Kenyan public in some ways.
The Report acknowledged the need for review of the disciplinary process of judicial officers in the form of a fair mechanism for both Judges and disgruntled members of the public to raise credible complaints. Its core administrative recommendation was the recognition of the right of access to justice prior to the constitution of 2010 by the suggestion of a 24-hour duty court. This is yet to come into effect but the report shows an appreciation of the judiciary as a service function on the part of the Taskforce members, and not least its chair.
Justice Ouko and the Taskforce had the objectivity of recognising that the Judiciary needed to change to become a better service portal for the citizen despite its chair having been a senior administrator therein. Even though the report was never fully implemented, the introspection shown by the chair of the Taskforce goes to say that he is capable of looking internally and saying it as it is- just what is required for reform. From this, one says that there is clarity on Justice Ouko’s mind on the shortcomings and strengths of the judiciary as an institution that can be addressed from the management and administrative side.
Approach to law
Just like every Judge, Justice Ouko’s judgments and decisions are telling on his approach to law and understanding of its purposes. Two of them are indicative. The first is a decision he made in the High court. He explained his understanding of the raison d’ etre of the Judiciary, adding that that the core business of the judiciary is to do justice. He lamented that the courts had fallen short of this purpose and chosen to worship at the altar of lesser ideals. He added that there was need to offload technicalities in order to embrace Justice. This act of introspection could explain his philosophical positioning as to the role of the law and the courts. Speaking of his legal school of thought, a by-stander would place Justice Ouko as a judicial realist. In his understanding, the Judge must ensure that Justice is the final product of the Courts. One might add that in his view procedures and technicalities must not be allowed to pollute the purity of the product- Justice. The business allegory is important for Justice Ouko, the Judiciary is the manufacturer of a product for the nation in the form of justice.
An observation about his performance in the court of appeal where cases are heard by more than one judge is that Justice Ouko is rarely in dissent. Could this be that he dislikes confrontation? The guess here could be due to his belief or abiding appreciation that collegiality is important for a court and leads to Judgments that are not diluted by dissent. Commitment to collegiality among the judges is good for the president of a court, even more for a Chief Justice in managing a supreme court.
Another core imperative for a person aspiring to be Chief Justice is courage as the main strand of judicial integrity, especially where it may involve persons who wield power over the court or individual judges. In the appeal by a former Deputy Chief Justice on the issue of the retirement age of Judges, Justice Ouko was part of a panel of a bold Court of Appeal, which held against the Deputy Chief Justice, technically their boss. The Panel invoked their oath of office citing the need to do justice fairly without fear, favour, ill-will affection but with the main object of promoting respect for the Judiciary and not to appear as favouring their welfare over the public purpose of constitutionality. They dismissed the deputy Chief Justice’s appeal. If there was a need to show independence on the Judge, this was one.
If longevity of service within an institution as an indicator of the ability to serve as its head were the sole ground for a decision, then the candidacy of President of the Court of Appeal Justice William Ouko is formidable. But Justice Ouko brings more; a rich management experience within the very institution he seeks to lead, a deep understanding of its weaknesses and not least the courage to undertake what needs to be done irrespective of whoever ends up being on the stinging end of the decision, whether a Judgment or an administrative action.