Pillar of democracy: Courts must always let public interest prevail

Thursday, August 1st, 2019 00:00 |
Justice. Photo/Courtesy
Alex Rienye

One pillar of democratic system of government is the concept of public interest. It demands that the interests of the wider society be taken into account in decision-making. As such, the public interest usually supersedes private or sectional interests in decision-making processes. 

Public interest can be loosely described as the welfare and good of the general public. But the courts and legal experts have been reluctant to prescribe a definition for the term “public interest”. Instead, they approach it from a broad perspective depending on the merits and circumstances of each case. 

As Lord Hailsham in the UK House of Lords said in the case of D versus National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “the categories of public interest are not closed.” Again, this goes to show the rather liberal jurisprudential approach to the notion of public interest. 

That said, courts have gone ahead to identify issues that constitute the public interest. They include public health, security, law and order, environmental protection, consumer rights, privacy and national defence. These are issues that the public has a considerable stake in. 

As a legal concept, public interest applies to elected and non-elected officials, and to the three arms of government: Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. 

As Chris Wheeler, a noted jurist and a leading authority on the subject writes, “Public officials have an overarching obligation to act in the public interest.” 

Administrators, legislators and judges cannot ignore the impact of their decisions on issues of public interest. 

It is generally accepted that the term ‘public interest’ ought to be distinguished from ‘what is of interest to the public’ or ‘what is of interest to know.’ In the Australian case Sinclair versus Mining Warden at Maryborough, the court pronounced that public interest is not the same as that which may be of interest to the public. 

Although a particular issue, say a sex scandal involving a public figure, may elicit widespread controversy, it may not necessarily be an issue of public interest.

Unless, of course, there is suspected pedophilia or rape in which case the public interest in protecting children and preventing sexual crimes comes into play. Otherwise, such should be regarded as a private matter.

Protecting public interest, therefore, requires a balancing act involving competing public interests. For example, the public has a significant interest in public order and safety. Citizens therefore expect the courts to take this into account when handling cases of terrorism and other serious crimes. 

In yet another Australian case McKinnon versus Secretary, Department of Treasury the court declared that public health, national security, anti-terrorism, defence or international obligations “may constitute over-riding interests when compared to other competing interests.” 

This clearly shows the primacy of the public interest. Courts and the Judiciary as a whole should bear in mind that protecting the public interest does not necessarily equate to violating or denying individual rights even in cases involving serious offences including terrorism. While each case should be considered on its merits, the wider public good should always prevail.

That is the only way our courts can be seen to be independent and committed to upholding justice. I am not saying that private and individual rights and interest don’t matter.

In a democratic polity, courts should uphold the rights of all citizens. But the Judiciary should be vigilant against cartels pursuing private interests disguised as the public interest. 

This is most pronounced in cases involving corruption and other crimes of an economic nature where suspects will attempt to stall the process by pleading all manner of violation of their rights. They seek to delay cases in order to defeat justice. Courts should reject such attempts.

By upholding public interest, our courts will regain the confidence of citizens. Independence of the Judiciary can only flourish where judicial officers are seen by the public to be protecting and defending the interest of the society as opposed to pandering to narrow, partisan and personal interests. — The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya — [email protected]  Twitter: @Kerienye

More on News