Magistrates’ Courts: The Backbone of Criminal Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of courts in criminal matters plays a crucial role in ensuring the fair and efficient administration of justice. In Kenya, the legal framework delineates the jurisdiction of different courts, each with distinct roles and responsibilities.

This article explores the jurisdiction of Magistrates’ Courts in criminal matters, highlighting the legal provisions, exceptions, and key considerations.

  • Legal Foundation: The jurisdiction of Magistrates’ Courts in criminal matters is conferred by the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the Magistrates’ Courts Act s. 6, Magistrates’ Courts Act. In practice, Magistrates’ Courts serve as the initial point of contact for all criminal cases, except for a few offenses reserved for the High Court by law. These exceptional cases include murder, treason, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
  • Grades of Magistrates’ Courts: The CPC, through its First Schedule, provides guidance on the different grades of Magistrates’ Courts in which specific offenses created by the Penal Code (PC) are to be heard (s. 4, CPC). To further specify the jurisdiction, section 7 of the CPC outlines the pecuniary jurisdiction and maximum terms of imprisonment that different grades of Magistrates’ Courts may impose.
  • Additional Statutory Jurisdiction: Beyond the CPC, various statutes grant criminal jurisdiction to Magistrates’ Courts for offenses under those statutes. Notable examples include the Contempt of Court Act, Children Act, Sexual Offences Act, Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act, and the Traffic Act. When a statute establishes offenses but does not specify the court’s jurisdiction, the High Court or a subordinate court of the first class, presided over by a Chief Magistrate, Senior Principal Magistrate, Principal Magistrate, or Senior Resident Magistrate, may assume jurisdiction (s. 5(2), CPC; Attorney-General v Mohamud Hashi & Nine Others Court of Appeal at Nairobi No. 113 of 2011).

Special Jurisdiction: Protecting Fundamental Rights

  • Protection of Fundamental Rights: Magistrates’ Courts are also entrusted with limited jurisdiction to address claims of denial, violation, infringement, or threats to the right to freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and freedom from slavery or servitude (s. 8(1), Magistrates’ Courts Act; Art. 23(2), CoK). These claims may arise during the criminal trial process, necessitating the court’s intervention.
  • Remedial Measures: In cases related to fundamental rights, Magistrates’ Courts are empowered to issue declaratory orders, injunctions, or conservatory orders to safeguard the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution Art. 23(3), CoK.

Limitations on Compensation Claims

  • Compensation Limitation: It’s important to highlight that the jurisdiction of Magistrates’ Courts in matters concerning fundamental rights does not extend to hearing and determining claims for compensation for loss or damage resulting from the violation, infringement, or denial of a right or fundamental freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights s. 8(3), Magistrates’ Courts Act).


Understanding the jurisdiction of courts in criminal matters is essential for a just and efficient legal system. Magistrates’ Courts, with their well-defined jurisdiction, serve as the cornerstone of the criminal justice system in Kenya.

While some exceptions exist for the High Court, Magistrates’ Courts play a pivotal role in promoting the rule of law, protecting fundamental rights, and ensuring the fair administration of justice in the country.