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Access to Justice in Kenya’s Magistrates’ Courts

Institutions & Governance Kenya

47 new magistrate judges being sworn in, 2019. Courtesy of the Judiciary of Kenya.


Kenya’s Magistrates courts hear the majority of cases in Kenya, given their authority over most civil cases, as well as all criminal cases except the most serious (such as murder, treason and crimes under international criminal law). These courts suffer from a lack of uniformity in decisions. For example, in 2016, manslaughter charges ranged from one year to life in prison. Reasons for these inconsistencies may range from inadequate legal research, judgment writing skills, and case management, to lack of integrity or impropriety.

Study Design

The researchers planned to evaluate and compare two approaches designed to improve the consistency of rulings and the speed of resolving cases in magistrates’ courts. The first intervention placed a courtroom observer in randomly selected courtrooms, to observe all of the cases of a particular judge. A randomized evaluation allows researchers to identify whether the presence of an independent observer reduces a judge’s sentencing disparities or improves efficiency by reducing delays to court hearings. The second intervention assigns clerks to randomly selected judges to help them manage their cases. The goal of evaluating this intervention was to understand whether clerk assistance improves the quality of written judgements and the speed at which judges produce those judgments.

Results and Policy Lessons

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic formally closed all courts in Kenya. As the courts moved online, researchers were unable to consistently access the courts, either online or in person, prohibiting the researchers from carrying out either intervention. However, preliminary findings from the field suggest that lack of clerking support does indeed constrain judges. Judges appear to assign clerks to research their most difficult cases, using the newly available time to catch up on their other cases to reduce their overall caseload. Because the pandemic also fundamentally changed the functioning of courts (by increasing the probability that cases are withdrawn), the research team will not continue this research project. More research is needed to clearly identify how additional personnel affects judicial outcomes.

  • Andrew J Harris
  • Kenya Law Reform Commission
  • Registrar of Magistrates Courts

2018 — 2020

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