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The more, the wiser: Empanelment of extraordinary benches in the court of appeal

Empanelment of a bench of judges refers to the administrative action of appointing several judges, to preside over a case or to hear an appeal. In the Court of Appeal empanelment of a bench would entail appointing an uneven number of judges being not less than three (3) in number, to hear and determine the matter either through a unanimous decision or by way a majority decision.

Section 13 (1) (b) of the Court of Appeal (Organization and Administration) Act, 2015 provides the President of the Court of Appeal is “…responsible for the allocation of cases and the constitution of benches, including ordinary and extraordinary benches, of the Court” amongst other functions. The Act does not define what an extraordinary bench is but from the meaning of the word extraordinary, it is taken to mean that the Court would be constituted in a unique, unusual or exceptional manner i.e. in a numerically greater coram than usual. This was remarked upon by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ouko (P), in the case of Multichoice (Kenya) Ltd v Wananchi Group (Kenya) Limited & 2 Others (2020) eKLR:

“The Act does not define what extraordinary benches are but, in my assessment, these would not be the usual benches of one judge (in chambers) or three in open Court, but of a number greater than these provided that the number is odd.”

Whereas section 5 (3) of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act (Cap. 9) Laws of Kenya provides for making of rules for the purposes of “fixing the numbers of judges who may sit for any purpose”, this provision has not been taken advantage of and no such rules have ever been made. In the circumstances, empanelment of appellate benches (whether ordinary or extraordinary) has come to be matter of practice, rather than procedural rule, and is a function carried out by the President of the Court. This observation is well captured in the aforementioned case of Multichoice (Kenya) Ltd v Wananchi Group (Kenya) Limited:

“Though the Rules Committee is empowered under section 5 (3) (i) of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act to make rules to fix the number of judges of the Court comprising an uneven number not being less than three, no such rules, unfortunately have been made. So that, apart from section 5 (3) (i) and the general provisions in section 13 (1) (b) of the Court of Appeal (Organization and Administration) Act, the empanelling of benches has been a matter of practice and not rules of procedure.”

In the Multichoice (Kenya) Ltd v Wananchi Group (Kenya) Limited case, Justice Ouko took a walk down memory lane and re-traced the practice of empanelment of a five-judge (or extraordinary) bench, pointing out that the power to empanel a five-judge bench rested with the President of the Court, while the process could be initiated either through an oral application made by a party before a three judge bench, or through a formal letter to the President of the Court:

“I take advantage of this appeal to, briefly outline…the correct practice and the proper circumstances for constituting a bench of more than three judges in this Court because the long-held practice appears to have been lost along the way. In the past it was the function of the President of the Court (in the years 1954 to 1977 when the predecessor of the Court had President) or the Presiding Judge in the years immediately preceding the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, to constitute such benches. Today acting on an oral application, a three-judge bench would direct that the President of the Court constitutes an enlarged bench…Sometimes, in response to mail from advocates, the Presiding Judge or President would empanel the bench. As way back in history as 1954, it was recognized by the predecessor of this Court…that the role of empanelling a five-Judge bench rested with the President of the Court.”

Having touched upon the process and means through which an extraordinary bench might be empanelled, we turn now to consider the grounds or basis upon which such empanelment might be made.

Departure from Previous Decisions

One of the grounds upon which one may request for the empanelment of an extraordinary bench would be where one would be asking the Court to depart from one or more of its previous decisions i.e. potentially upsetting precedent, in recognition of the fact that while the Court should abide by the doctrine of precedent, it is nevertheless free in both civil and criminal cases to depart from previous decisions, when it is right to do so.

In the case of Income Tax v T (1974) EA 549, Justice Spry (Ag. P) explained as follows —being a reiteration of an earlier decision of the Court of Appeal in PHR Poole v R (1960) EA 63:

“A full Court of Appeal has no greater powers than a division of the Court; but if it is to be contended that there are grounds, upon which the Court could act, for departing from a previous decision of the Court, it is obviously desirable that a matter should, if practicable, be considered by a bench of five judges.”

Review of Conflicting Decisions

Closely related to a situation where the Court is directly asked to depart from a previous decision, (not previously thought to be wrong), is where the Court has unwittingly given varying opinions on a matter. Whilst the Court is not bound by its previous decision, the doctrine of stare decisis calls for deference to precedent, while conflicting decisions on the same issue necessarily means that one school of thought is wrong.

Thus, while stating that the “strengthening of the normal bench of three by two more heads” was desirable when the Court was called upon to review inconsistent decisions, the Court of Appeal rendered itself as follows in Eric V. J. Makokha & 4 Others v Lawrence Sagini & 2 Other (1994) eKLR

“Some muted but not impolite observation was made about the numerical composition of the Court by the applicant’s counsel but the breadth and sophistication of the submissions made to us for four whole days, justified the strengthening of the normal bench of three by two more heads. Because of the hierarchical structure of the Court, it is also the practice adopted to review inconsistent decisions of this Court.”

Substantial Question of Law

The Constitution does not define what a substantial question of law is (it may well be argued that any question of law is substantial), but Justice Majanja attempted a definition in the case of Harrison Kinyanjui v Attorney General & Another (2012) eKLR, where he held that:

“…the meaning of ‘substantial question’ must take into account the provisions of the Constitution as a whole and the need to dispense justice without delay particularly given specific fact situation. In other words, each case must be considered on its merits by the judge certifying the matter. It must also be remembered that each High Court judge, has authority under Article 165 of the Constitution, to determine any matter that is within the jurisdiction of the High Court. Further, and notwithstanding the provisions of Article 165(4), the decision of a three Judge bench is of equal force to that of a single judge exercising the same jurisdiction. A single judge deciding a matter is not obliged to follow a decision of the Court delivered by three judges.”

In Santosh Hazari v Purushottam Tiwari (2001) 3 SCC 179, the Supreme Court of India summarized the question of whether a matter raises a substantial question of law as follows:

  • directly or indirectly, it affects substantial rights of the parties
  • the question is of general public importance
  • it is an open question, in that the issue has not previously been settled by the Court
  • the issue is not free from difficulty
  • it calls for a discussion for alternative view

The above considerations shed some light as to what would amount to “a substantial question of law” for the purposes of empanelment of an extraordinary bench. As Justice Odungasuccinctly stated in Wycliffe Ambetsa Oparanya & 2 Others v Director of Public Prosecutions & Another (2016) eKLR:

“…a Court seized with the question as to whether or not an extraordinary bench is required may also consider whether the matter is moot in the sense that the matter raises a novel point; whether the matter is complex; whether the matter by its nature requires a substantial amount of time to be disposed of; the effect of the prayers sought in the petition and the level of public interest generated by the petition.”


There is no doubting the juridical benefit derived from drawing upon the collective wisdom, experience and understanding of an increased number of judicial heads put together, where the circumstances call for the same. It is a recourse that perhaps the Rules Committee of the Court of Appeal might make readily available by promulgating the Rules envisaged under section 5 (3) of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, which would stipulate the procedure and grounds for the empanelment of an extraordinary bench.