BY JUDICIAL SERVICE COMMISSION
Recent media reports and commentary regarding the vehicles that judges drive have been inaccurate and lacked essential facts for an informed public debate on the issue.
Kenyans are not only entitled to ask questions, but also have a right to the full facts. The Constitution identifies transparency, accountability, social justice, equity, non-discrimination and public participation as among the national values and principles that bind state organs.
The Judiciary is a transparent institution, open to public scrutiny and debate. This openness and readiness to explain itself is anchored in the recognition that there is a direct link between taxation and democracy. Kenyans pay for the Judiciary and in return deserve to be fully informed about how their taxes are spent.
Three weeks ago, the Chief Justice released the State of the Judiciary and Administration of Justice Report, which was very candid and made full disclosure on how this organ of State is – its work, staff, infrastructure and expenditures.
The Judicial Service Commission, which is responsible for reviewing and recommending the terms and conditions of service for all Judiciary employees, would like to restate the following facts.
Judges have all along used Mercedes Benz and Peugeot 504 saloon vehicles as official vehicles since the 1980s.
In 1998, the government adopted the Report of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, popularly known as the Kwach Report, to assign judges of the Court of Appeal Mercedes Benz E230 series, and Mercedes E220 or Volvo 940 to judges of the High Court.
Thus, Mercedes Benz cars became part of the entitlements and benefits judges receive. The current range does not exceed 1800cc engine capacity, which is within government regulations.
Two years ago, when the government announced the policy shift on engine capacity, the concern was about reducing engine capacity to under 1800cc. The Mercedes cars judges were driving were below that capacity, hence the Judiciary was not in breach of government regulations.
Article 160 (4) of the Constitution states that the remuneration and benefits payable to, or in respect of a judge, shall not be varied to the disadvantage of that judge. This benefit cannot be withdrawn or varied without violating the Constitution.
As vehicles age, the cost of maintaining and running them rises and makes it cheaper to buy new ones. The purchase of 40 replacement Mercedes Benz vehicles in the 2011/12 financial year was carried out in just such circumstances.
The Chief Justice’s old official car, a Mercedes Benz S320, was replaced after 12 years because it was becoming expensive to maintain on account of its age. Since the S320 is no longer in production, the equivalent S350 was bought – with full approvals from the relevant offices. Similar approvals were obtained to buy Land Cruiser Prados that exceed the engine rating of 2000 cc to enable Court of Appeal judges who hear cases on circuits outside Nairobi, as well as Judiciary administrative offices that exercise oversight nationally.
Media reports also alleged that the Judiciary had rejected a car loan scheme proposed for judges. The correct position is that the car loan scheme proposed by Treasury was untenable because it was no longer going to be a benefit but a punishment to judges, who would have to make monthly repayments that would unconstitutionally reduce their pay.
The Judiciary is sensitive to the issue of official vehicles, and the need for prudence in the management of public resources placed under it. There has been a vigorous internal debate that has generated a comprehensive policy response, especially on the issue of vehicles.
There is a three-step transitional strategy to create a sound car policy without violating the constitutional rights of judges. First is to preserve existing rights. Second is to step down from Mercedes Benz to other vehicles which overall offer the best value for money. Third is to launch a staff car loan scheme.
The State of the Judiciary Report released on October 19, 2012, states that a staff car loan scheme will be introduced in early 2013. Under the scheme, expected to be rolled out once discussions with the Salaries and Remuneration Commission are concluded, all Judiciary employees, including judges, will be able to buy vehicles of their choice and pay for them.
We also wish to point out that the Judiciary has introduced a fuel card and vehicle tracking system that have reduced the fuel bill by 40 percent.
The Judicial Service Commission is alive to the realities of managing transition within the Judiciary. The overriding consideration is, and will always be, to offer the taxpayer value for money even in the acquisition and servicing of vehicles.
The Judiciary is constantly reviewing and rationalising all its expenditures, from disparities in pay to how much is paid out in allowances. The Judiciary budget will always be open to public participation and scrutiny.
Already, the Judiciary has begun this accountability culture with the release of the State of Judiciary Report, and the recent public hearing on its next budget estimates. This is what the Judiciary understands to be the constitutional demand to serve rather than to rule over people.
Hon. Justice Isaac Lenaola, Chairman, Human Resource Committee and
Mr Ahmednasir Abdullahi, Chairman, Finance & Administration Committee.