Profiles

William Ouko: A down-to-earth judge who loves music, books

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Appeals Court President William Ouko. NMG PHOTO

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Summary

  • If confirmed to join the Supreme Court, Justice William Ouko will become the first judicial officer to rise from the lower rank of a district magistrate to the country’s top court.
  • The 60-year-old judge, who is described by colleagues as humble and team player, joined the Judiciary in 1987 as a district magistrate II.
  • He then rose to the position of deputy registrar, senior deputy, principal and later the Registrar of the High Court where he served for two years before he was appointed a judge in 2004.

If confirmed to join the Supreme Court, Justice William Ouko will become the first judicial officer to rise from the lower rank of a district magistrate to the country’s top court.

The 60-year-old judge, who is described by colleagues as humble and team player, joined the Judiciary in 1987 as a district magistrate II. He then rose to the position of deputy registrar, senior deputy, principal and later the Registrar of the High Court where he served for two years before he was appointed a judge in 2004.

Justice Ouko was later elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2012 and six years later, he was elected the president of the country’s second highest court.

If confirmed to join the Supreme Court, Justice Ouko will find familiar faces in the apex court having served with Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu and the nominee for the position of the Chief Justice Martha Koome at the Court of Appeal.

He also served as a judge of the High Court together with Justice Mohammed Ibrahim and Justice Isaac Lenaola.

On Thursday, a few hours after completing interviewing six candidates who had applied to join the Supreme Court, Olive Mugenda, the vice chair of the Judicial Service Commission, announced to the country that after deliberations, they had settled on Justice Ouko to fill the vacant position.

The position has remained vacant since Justice Jackton Ojwang left in February last year after attaining the retirement age of 70 years. A judge can opt for early retirement after attaining 65 years, as per Article 167(1) of the Constitution.

Judge Ouko loves sports and one of his favourite was tennis, which he would still be playing but for his knees. He took up golf but was forced to leave after making what he terms as embarrassing swings.

“I then took up golf but I was forced to abandon it after making a succession of embarrassing swings,” he says.

Justice Ouko loves reading and listening to music as well. “All kinds of music,” he offered in a previous interview. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice (MACJ), Bachelor of Law from the University of Nairobi and a diploma in Legal Practice from Kenya School of Law.

During his interview, Justice Ouko cited tribalism and corruption as two of the most dangerous diseases afflicting the country.

“Diversity, ethnicity, and ‘it's our turn to eat’ is a very dangerous disease…I really don’t have a prescription. All I know is we are very deeply tribal even in this commission,” he said without going into the details.

The judge, who is also a former registrar of the High Court, currently known as Chief Registrar of Judiciary is credited for reducing the backlog of cases at the Court of Appeal despite operating with about 15 judges.

Speaking in a previous interview, Justice Ouko attributed this to “not entertaining adjournments”.

“Once a matter is listed it has to proceed unless in very special circumstances,” he said.

The judge agreed that the problems bedeviling the Judiciary include corruption, backlog of cases, and delayed judgments all of which he said, impact on the litigants.

“Corruption is like night running; no night runner runs during the day. And it takes two to tango. The Ombudsman office is there, it is the office we must take seriously. (In the) wealth declaration forms… nobody checks if the car you said you own in 2009 is the same one you use,” he said.

The judge suggested that it was time to implement the numerous reports presented by the Judiciary to tackle some of the problems it is facing. “We have reached a time when there are too many reports. What we need now is implementation of these reports. I do not think, from where I sit, that we have been focused in implementation. We have been focused on generating more and more work, replicating what has been done before,” he said.

At the Court of Appeal where Justice Ouko was the President, the court has been operating at the bare minimum with only 13 judges as opposed to the required 30.

There has been an impasse between the Executive and Judiciary over the appointment of the 40 judges as recommended by JSC. They were 41 but one of them died in a road accident recently.

Those recommended by JSC included 11 judges for the Court of Appeal, while the rest were destined for Environment and Land court as well as Employment and Labour Relations court.

The Executive has maintained that President Kenyatta could not approve the list of judges sent to him by the commission because some judges had integrity issues, an argument rejected by JSC and the non-governmental organisation.

The court will need to recruit more if Justices Koome and Ouko, are approved to become the Chief Justice and Supreme Court judge respectively.