Martha Koome: Judge with a soft spot for children


PHOTO | FILE One of the Appellate judges Martha Koome, who annulled the award of Sh97 million to Mbeere residents. The other two judges were justices Otieno Odek and Alnashir Visram.

Court of Appeal judge Martha Koome has a bias for children. She will defend them whenever and wherever.

“Children have no voice, so I choose to speak for them because I recognise they are our bridge to the future and unless we nurture them, our future will be precarious,” she told the Business Daily.

Announcement this week that she is the runner-up for the 2020 UN in Kenya Person of the Year, a recognition for her children rights advocacy, therefore, came as no surprise.

“I recognise that children are vulnerable due to their age. I also recognise when they are in conflict with the law or they are victims of offences, it is because of failure of a system. The society, family or community have failed them. That makes children victims,” she said.

Justice Koome added that when children are brought before the courts, they are traumatised and stigmatised such that it is so difficult for them to adjust to a normal life and reach their full potential as adult citizens.

“This is why we prioritise children matters for hearing and conduct service weeks to clear backlog of cases,” she said.

The Court of Appeal judge and mother of three joined the Judiciary in 2003 and served in several stations, among them Nakuru and Nairobi, before she was elevated the Court of Appeal in 2011.

Justice Koome once described her court as the “most accessible, efficient and friendlier”. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Family Division of the High Court.

During the vetting of judges and magistrates in 2012, Justice Koome chose to be interviewed in public. She readily acknowledged that corruption was rampant in courts, stating that when in private practice she had given up on criminal law because of its pervasiveness.

The interviewing board noted that she managed her cases well and if she erred, it was in favour of promoting human rights. She maintained during the vetting that the interests of the child should always be paramount.

Justice Koome chaired the National Council on the Administration of Justice special taskforce on children matters that highlighted the plight of children in the Justice system. The taskforce mobilised and coordinated other stakeholders to review the Children's Act and align it with the Constitution and developed practice directions to deal with children during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The taskforce also sourced for laptops which were supplied to children's remand homes to enable them conduct virtual hearing of cases.

Among the cases she handled while serving at the High Court was the succession case involving the estate of former minister Mbiyu Koinange. In a ruling in 2005, Justice Koome described the incessant wrangles among the family, whose case had been pending in court for decades, as an unending circus.

“I am sorry to state that going through this court file and the tactics employed by the parties and their advocates can only be likened to the classical theatre of the absurd,” she said.

In 2012, she wrote a dissenting opinion on the next election date stating that a date beyond January 15, 2013 was outside the period of five years of the parliamentary term.

“However, bringing the above principles to bear in this case, I most respectfully disagree with the order that the next general election should be held 60 days after the expiration of the unexpired term,” she said.

In her acceptance speech, the judge said she was grateful that it was not only those ordinary mwanachi on the streets who had noticed her work for children, but also the UN.

“In accepting this nomination, I do so to celebrate and affirm that our children are indeed a gift from God, our bridge to the future and we owe them a duty of care. All of us stand in a position of local parents for a child, be it in the streets, in a remand home or schools. If a child is not in a good place, it is because of failure of a system in the society. This is the message I spread that our “children, our collective responsibility,” Justice Koome said.

She obtained a law degree from the University of Nairobi in 1986 and a post graduate Diploma from Kenya School of Law in 1987.

She began her legal career in private practice in 1988, running one of the most successful women law firms at the time. She did her Master’s degree (LL.M) in Public International Law from the University of London and completed it in 2010.

Before joining the Judiciary in 2003, justice Koome had distinguished herself as a defender of human rights, concentrating on gender rights in private practice. She represented political detainees and persons charged with politically instigated offences during the volatile period of one-party rule.

Justice Koome previously served as a council member of the Law Society of Kenya and was in the forefront campaigning for rights of women and the welfare of children. In September 2011, she was elected the chairperson of the Kenya Magistrate and Judges Association.

She was presented with a Certificate of Commendation in a ceremony at the UN Office in Nairobi by the UNODC Regional Representative for Eastern Africa, Dr Amado Philip de Andrés.

“We’re delighted that Justice Koome is being honoured for her leadership and advocacy concerning the rights of children who find themselves in the justice system,” Dr Andres said.

The Award is presented annually to commemorate UN Day on October 24 and honour an individual or an institution for succeeding to bring to public notice significant issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The main award went to 15 students from Kenyatta University who designed a ventilator, inspired by the need to find solutions to health impacts of Covid-19, while the second runner-up was Ms Wawira Njiru, Director of Food 4 Education that distributes meals to school children.