Out of Africa: Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch is a tireless reformer for children & family rights in Kenya and worldwide

Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch was around 18 years old when, out of the blue one day, she was taken on a short trip by her father that would change her life forever. It would be the start of a far longer journey, resulting in an education and career spanning decades.

As a regional administrator in Kenya and a lay magistrate, her father had local influence and told young Joyce that a legal profession would give her a decent career and long-term employment. He drove her along Ngong Road in Nairobi and dropped her off with a friend who had to be her initial mentor, Mr Tudor Jackson, an Irishman, and Principal of the Kenya School of Law at the time.

Remarkable career

Since that day, Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch has had a remarkable career serving on Kenya’s High Court and becoming the first Chairperson of the Committee of African Union Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. She’s also a sought-after advisor and consultant on issues regarding justice, human rights, and child welfare.

Elsewhere, Lady Justice Aluoch has worked for international organisations as diverse as UNICEF, the UNDP and UN Women. With a focus on justice, children’s rights, and the advancement of the rule of law, Lady Justice Aluoch has dedicated her life to promoting equality, fairness, and accountability. It’s an impressive resume.

The day my life changed

“I remember the day when my life changed, just like it was yesterday,” she laughs. “I had recently finished my A-level exams and during the holiday I was here in Nairobi.

“I was staying with my father for a few days before we were due to head back to our village together. With no warning, he told me one evening, ‘Tomorrow morning, when I’m going to work, I’d like you to come with me. I want to take you somewhere.’

“It’s funny looking back now, but I didn’t even ask him where we were going. My father was like a giant, very tall and I remember we drove straight to the Kenya School of Law.”

“I was wondering how he knew somebody in this school when he parked up and said: ‘Please follow me.’ And he was so tall and had such huge steps I had to run to keep up with him.

“When we entered the building he introduced me to his good friend, law professor Mr Tudor Jackson. My father said: ‘Sorry I’m in a bit of a hurry; I need to get to work and can’t stay. But this is my daughter, Joyce. She’s done her A levels and I want her to be a lawyer. Please excuse me, I’ve got to run.’ He left me with Mr Jackson and that’s how it all started.”

The best profession in the world

Young Joyce was a little overwhelmed by this sudden change of circumstance, but Tudor Jackson quickly took her under his wing and told her that being a lawyer was the best profession in the world.

“I started at the Kenya School of Law, and then the faculty opened and we all transferred to the University of Nairobi and graduated three years later. I was then admitted to the bar as advocate of the High Court of Kenya.”

On graduating, Lady Justice Aluoch went straight to the bench and started her career as a magistrate – working her way up the justice system and rising to the High Court and finally to the Court of Appeal.

“At that time, the highest court in Kenya was the Court of Appeal. But today we have the Supreme Court. Although I didn’t stay in the Court of Appeal for very long, I stayed in the High Court for several years. Then the Kenya government nominated me to run for a position as a judge of the International Criminal Court.”

Since rising to the top of her profession, Lady Justice Aluoch has shown continuous commitment to upholding justice and promoting the rights of women, children and families. Her appointment as the inaugural head of the family division of the Kenyan High Court led to a dedication to resolving family disputes and ensuring the well-being of children, which she continues to do to this day, in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.

Laws to protect children

She has advocated for child-friendly procedures and introduced laws to protect children from abuse and neglect. Her work also involved chairing the Task Force on Sexual Offences Act to operationalise its provisions for combating sexual offences and supporting survivors of abuse.

“While I was in the Kenyan judiciary and in the High Court, as a judge, I was very strong on family law.

“I remember going to the Chief Justice and telling him we should have a family division. He didn’t agree with me so it back and forth and back and forth. When eventually he agreed, we established a family division and I became ahead of that and I started organising how it would operate.”

Beyond Kenya’s borders

By this time Lady Justice Aluoch’s career extended beyond Kenya’s national borders. Her expertise for justice earned her recognition at the international level. In 2003, she was appointed as the Vice-Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, where she played a pivotal role in shaping policies and recommendations to safeguard children’s rights worldwide.

Furthermore, Lady Justice Aluoch made history as the First Chairperson of the Committee of African Union Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Her leadership in this role helped strengthen the African Union’s commitment to protecting and promoting the rights of children across the continent. She also played a crucial part in negotiating with the Sudanese government to ratify the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, ensuring greater protection for children in Sudan.

“I was contacted and told: ‘We’re looking for judges, retired judges, who have a background of mediation to reform the judiciary of South Sudan.’ That’s how I got involved, purely by a phone call. For three months I refused. I didn’t think I could work in a war zone that had been going through a conflict for 21 years.”

“ I said, I’m just not sure that I can handle it. It’s such a huge job. I’d already had a long career by this point and suddenly this happened. That’s a real challenge, isn’t it?”

Off to South Sudan

Lady Justice Joyce Aluoch teamed up with Justice James Ogoola from Uganda and ten lawyers from South Sudan in the work of Judicial Reforms whose mandate includes reviewing and making recommendations on specific laws, building the capacity of judicial personnel and infrastructure, establishment of an independent, impartial and credible Constitutional Court whose composition, functions and duties shall be regulated by law, etc.

The mandate also involves public consultations in the ten states and the three Administrative areas some of which do not have state courts and judges, but rely on chiefs who preside over the customary law courts and preside over all disputes, both civil and criminal including murder, rape, robbery, yet they have no legal training.

I was essentially told that whatever you have to do, do it. This was because I wanted the people of South Sudan to own the reforms in the judiciary.

First Vice President of the International Criminal Court

Other high points in Lady Justice Aluoch’s career came with her appointment as the First Vice President of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, Netherlands. This prestigious position acknowledged her expertise in international law and her dedication to ensuring justice for victims of crimes.

During her tenure at the ICC, Lady Justice Aluoch played a critical role in adjudicating cases and shaping the court’s jurisprudence. Her commitment to fairness, impartiality, and the rule of law helped enhance the ICC’s standing as a beacon of justice on the global stage.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Tireless as ever, after she retired from the bench in 2018 Lady Justice Aluoch successfully moved into Alternative Dispute Resolution, mediation and arbitration. She has since become a member of the International Advisory Board of the Office of the Ombudsman for the United Nations Funds and Programmes.

Recently, she has been appointed Chair of the Advisory Board of the newly formed Africa-Asia Mediation Association (AAMA). She is also a Board Member of Mediators Beyond Borders International and an “Adjunct Professor,” of the Faculty of Law, the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

When asked, after such a long and distinguished career, what she likes to do in her spare time (if she ever has any), she laughs: “I like looking after my grandchildren. I also like to travel and do a lot of that with my work in dispute resolution.

Last November I was in Edinburgh and was a speaker at a conference organised by the International Council for Commercial Arbitration. This year Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI) are having their first Congress ever in Africa and particularly Kenya. I am Congress Chair. “I’m also a director of the African Arbitration Association, and we’re going to have a conference in October in South Africa. I like to interact with fellow practitioners, and that’s why I enjoy conferences. Last year, I was in Goa, India, for example.

She smiles: “So all that keeps me busy. I don’t have much time for anything else, but I used to read a lot of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.”