Senior Counsel Fred Ngatia was on Tuesday asked to explain his relationship with President Uhuru Kenyatta, and whether their friendship will influence his work if he becomes Chief Justice.
Mr Ngatia – a seasoned and polished lawyer with over 41 years of experience in legal practice – was questioned by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) on whether his relationship with the President, whom he represented in the 2013 and the 2017 presidential election petitions at the Supreme Court, would affect his work.
High Court Judge David Majanja, a member of the JSC interviewing panel, said there were concerns by members of the public and others that Mr Ngatia, having represented the Head of State, was an insider in government, and would become cosy with the State if appointed Chief Justice, thereby interfering with the independence of the Judiciary.
But Mr Ngatia denied the accusations, saying that his relationship with the Head of State was on a lawyer-client basis.
“I would wish to inform Kenyans and JSC that I was appointed in 2013 to lead a team same as 2017. But despite acting for the President, as soon as my brief was over, I went back to my private practice. That is why you never saw me in the lineup for conferment of any position in a State corporation or any chairmanship. The President has not tried to influence me in any work I have done,” he said.
Mr Ngatia said the perceptions were a misjudgment of his character as a person and as a lawyer, insisting that his legal practice has been guided by the principles of ethics and professionalism, something he said he would carry to the Judiciary.
“Do not discriminate (against) me because of the client I have acted for. Because I have acted for the high, for the poor and even those in terminal. Do not isolate one person and discriminate (against) me. The President, as any other person, is entitled to legal representation, for which was an honour. I am not ashamed of acting for him,” said Mr Ngatia.
“No Kenyan properly informed will see me influenced by the President. I have worked for many Kenyans who have sought my services including condemned prisoners,” he went on.
Presidential election petitions
Mr Ngatia was one of the lead lawyers for President Kenyatta in the 2013 and the 2017 presidential election petitions filed at the Supreme Court by ODM leader Raila Odinga.
The 64-year-old lawyer would again act as a lead counsel for the Head of State in a second petition filed by the Africa Center for Open Governance (Africog), challenging the results of the repeat presidential election in 2017.
Besides the President, Mr Ngatia’s long list of high-ranking clientele also includes Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, businessman Kamlesh Pattni, Justices Philip Tunoi, Mohammed Ibrahim and Abida Ali-Aroni and the late Vice President George Saitoti.
Mr Ngatia said that, if appointed Chief Justice, he will help advance the transformational agendas of his predecessors Willy Mutunga and David Maraga.
He insisted that his experiences as a lawyer had earned him the right skills for the job.
“You have had a Chief Justice who was from the academia who did a tremendous job. You have had a Chief Justice from the bench who also expanded the courts in the country and increased the number of judges. And now, you have a chance of getting a Chief Justice who has been a consumer of these services,” he said.
“For 40 years, I have been to every court in this country and I do believe that I have a practitioner’s eye that can see the weaknesses and perceived weaknesses that can be advanced to achieve justice.”
The lawyer, who boasts two Master’s degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Strathmore University, said that his past engagements, including that of his involvement in the resolution of the Kenya-Sudan boundary disputes, had prepared him for the top job.
Mr Ngatia obtained his first Master of Law degree from the LSE in 1984, during which he researched the boundary dispute between Kenya and Sudan.
He later earned a second Master in Applied Philosophy and Ethics from Strathmore University in 2019.
Streamline the operations of the Judiciary
If appointed, Mr Ngatia said that his first call of duty would be to streamline the operations of the Judiciary, including its relationship with the other arms of government, something that his supporters say would be achievable due to his vast networks both inside and outside government.
The lawyer, who has represented both the National Assembly and the Council of Governors in the ever emotive Division of Revenue Bill, said he would take to the Judiciary, an experienced hand and a person passionate about the rule of law and justice.
He said that one of his first responsibilities would be to fast-track the pending appointment and swearing-in of the 41 judges and magistrates.
But he said it would not be a condition to President Kenyatta before he is formally sworn in.
“I do not think it is possible to have a condition spelt out to the appointing authority. I think it will be disrespectful. But at the same time, I will make it as important as my swearing-in. I will say that even as you appoint me, I have been left handicapped without the necessary tools to carry out my work,” he said when asked how he would ensure that the 41 judges are appointed by the President.
Besides his qualifications and experience, Mr Ngatia was also asked to explain how he would judge cases, like the presidential election petitions he was involved in, without bias.
“I will approach that court with a very open mind. I will be a Chief Justice who listens to legal arguments irrespective of what I argued or what were my legal positions before,” he said.
The senior counsel started his career as a State Counsel at the Attorney General’s office in 1980 but resigned seven years later to begin private law practice.
He first started as a partner at Kagia and Ngatia Advocates and later broke away to start Ngatia and Associates in 1996.
He is the seventh candidate to appear before the 10-member JSC panel that will also hire another Supreme Court judge to replace Justice Jackton Ojwang who retired last year.
All 10 JSC commissioners – Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu (Supreme Court), Justice Mohamed Warsame (Court of Appeal), Justice David Majanja (High Court), Ms Evelyn Olwande (Chief Magistrates Court), Macharia Njeru (Law Society of Kenya), Ms Ann Amadi (Judiciary Registrar), Mr Kihara Kariuki (Attorney General), Patrick Gichohi (Public Service Commission), Mr Felix Koskei (public representative) and Prof Olive Mugenda (public representative) – are presiding over the selection process.