The Chief Justice of Kenya is the head of the Judiciary of Kenya and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya and is an office established under Article 161 of the Kenyan Constitution. He or she is assisted by the Deputy Chief Justice who is also the Deputy President of the Supreme Court.
The current Chief Justice is Philomena Mbete Mwilu who is holding the office in an acting capacity pending the recruitment of a substantive successor to David Kenani Maraga who retired on 12 January 2021.
Appointment and tenure of office
Before the enactment of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, the President appointed the Chief Justice without any interview process or parliamentary approval. The Chief Justice did not enjoy security of tenure, and could be dismissed at the pleasure of the President.
Under the new Constitution, the Chief Justice is formally appointed by the President but is selected by the Judicial Service Commission following a competitive process involving a vacancy announcement, shortlisting of applicants and interviews. In order to be appointed as the Chief Justice, a person must have at least fifteen years experience as a legal practitioner. At the end of the interviews, the Judicial Service Commission selects one individual whose name is forwarded to Parliament for vetting and approval. If Parliament gives the candidate the green light, he is then formally appointed by the President.
In order to give the President more leeway in appointing the Chief Justice, the ruling Jubilee Coalition pushed through an amendment which required the Judicial Service Commission to provide three qualified individuals from which the President would appoint one as the Chief Justice. However, the constitutional court declared the amendment unconstitutional, and the President will only receive one name from the Judicial Service Commission.
Like all Judges, the Chief Justice serves until he reaches 70 years, with an option for early retirement one he reaches 65. No matter his age, an individual may not serve for more than ten years as Chief Justice. As such, an individual who serves for ten years as Chief Justice must retire from the office of the Chief Justice even if he is not yet 70, but may opt to stay on the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice until he reaches 70.
The Chief Justice may be removed from office if a Tribunal appointed to inquire into his conduct finds that he should not remain in office.
In the event of a vacancy in the office of the Chief Justice, the Deputy Chief Justice performs the role in an acting capacity until a new Chief Justice is named. Where the Deputy Chief Justice position is also vacant, the senior-most Associate Justice of the Supreme Court will act as the President of the Supreme Court until a Chief Justice is named. An example of this occurred in 2016, when the senior Associate Justice Mohamed Ibrahim acted as the President of the Supreme Court following the early retirement of Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who turned 69 in June 2016, and the retirement of Deputy Chief Justice Kalpana Rawal who turned 70 in January 2016.
The Chief Justice performs a wide range of judicial, administrative and ceremonial duties provided for under the Constitution and various statutes.
As the President and head of the Supreme Court of Kenya, he sits on the bench of the court and gives directions on which Associate Justices are to preside over cases. As the Chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission, he has a lead role in setting policies for the administration of justice and the running of the judicial arm. He also takes part in the selection and recruitment of Judges and Magistrates who are appointed by the Judicial Service Commission which he chairs.
He is also the administrative head of the Judiciary, although the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary is responsible for oversight over administrative matters.
The Chief Justice also presides over the swearing-in of the President, the Deputy President and many other government officials. He also ceremoniously administers the oath that newly qualified lawyers take as they are admitted to the Roll of Advocates.
List of Chief Justices
|Took office||Left office||Appointed by|
|East Africa Protectorate|
|1||Sir Robert Hamilton
|Colony and Protectorate of Kenya|
|1||Sir Jacob Barth
|2||Sir Joseph Sheridan
|3||Sir Barclay Nihill
|4||Sir Horace Hearne
|5||Sir Kenneth O’Connor
|6||Sir Ronald Sinclair
|7||Sir John Ainley
|Dominion of Kenya|
|1||Sir John Ainley
|Republic of Kenya|
|1||Sir John Ainley
|3||Sir James Wicks
|4||Sir Alfred Simpson
|9||Abdul Majid Cockar
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Justice Mohamed Ibrahim will act as Supreme Court president following the exit of Willy Mutunga.
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