Attorney-at-Law and candidate in the two-pronged race to the helm of the Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL), Upul Jayasuriya speaks to the Daily Mirror on the challenges ahead, the mistakes of the past and the need to consolidate. The hotly contested election scheduled to be held tomorrow would decide on the next man to step into the rather nondescript shoes of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who decided against contesting for the presidency for a second term as has been the norm among incumbents. - By Hafeel Farisz
Q:On what grounds are you contesting for the Presidency of the BASL?
This was motivated by the fact that Mr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe stepped down without running for the second year and a large number of senior and junior lawyers urged me to come forward at this stage. In fact my nomination papers were signed by four past presidents of the BASL, Mr. Romesh De Silva PC, Mr. Ikram Mohomed PC, Mr. Upali Gunaratne PC and Mr. Ananda Wijesekara PC. They are all responsible men; they saw a need for a strong presidency because there was a feeling that came about from within the legal fraternity that the BASL could have been stronger during the recent crisis, and that some of the actions that were taken by the BASL could have been more assertive. So in that instance without making a comment on the past, I would like to say that in the future the BASL has to be assertive and steer forward on the same thinking with the general membership.
Q:Don’t you agree that the BASL has been inherently a political organisation?
The bar association and the bar is not politicised. One of the good examples would be the election of Mr. Wijeydasa Rajapakshe as the president. He was a sitting Parliamentarian at the time of his appointment, but the bar never took it seriously. That was not an issue for them so long as he was able to transcend between politics and the professional duties and take decisions and move forward. Most lawyers have political views that are perfectly fine. Some lawyers hold office on both elected posts and appointed posts. But apart from all that many of whom I met during this campaign were of one view irrespective of political affiliations - with regard to what happened during the impeachment process.
Q: Do you think that the BASL failed the public and country during the impeachment process?
No I wouldn’t say that. The public may have expected more, not having understood the constraints under which we work. We don’t belong to a political party, group or view, and we had to listen to everyone. However I would say we could have been more assertive and taken more prompt decisions and been more effective and positive in our approach.
Q: You were a supporter of Mr. Tirantha Walaliyadde during the last election. What changed from a year before?
In fact I signed his nomination papers. I too personally believe that politicians should not be at the helm of the BASL. I admire Mr. Wijeydasa Rajapakshe and his success story and have followed his career. But I told him ‘if you want to come forward, step down from your seat and come forward if you so desire’. In fact I showed him by an example of my own conduct. When I was Chairman of a corporation at that time and wanted to contest for the post of Secretary, a senior member of the bar told me that he would support me on one condition – he said “you can’t hold any position in the government and cannot compromise the integrity of the Bar”. I resigned from the Chairmanship and contested. I don’t think Mr. Rajapakshe would have resigned from Parliament, but as you all know it came to a situation where it was very embarrassing for him. He was an MP, he had a couple of hats to wear in different instances. It would have been best if he was not the President at the time. But I think in all sincerity, Mr. Rajapakshe was under a lot of pressure and did his best.
Q: At this point what do you think the role of the bar should be?
We have to consolidate; we have to work with all the executive agencies. But in the meantime we must not compromise our cause and the principles that we have stood for. There is no turning back. The Bar requires a lot of attention. There are instances of foreign law firms being paid in excess of 3 million dollars. Members are not aware of these things. We have to urge the government not to allow such a situation. Now even this recent agreement with India states that lawyers would be able to come to our country and practice. We have over 700 lawyers joining the Bar each year - imagine more foreign lawyers also coming to the country to practice! Can we go to other countries and practice? You have to go there and sit for those exams and only thereafter, practice. But on the mere signing of an agreement if lawyers are allowed to come here and practice that is a very grave situation. Then on the other hand, there are other professionals who undertake lawyers’ work and charge a fee. There is a specific ordinance which states that only lawyers could charge legal fees, but today other professional bodies, firms, and institutions which aren’t qualified to practice law charge legal fees. Some institutions charge fees amounting to Rs.500,000 million a year which is the entitlement of the legal profession.
Q: Do you not think that the Bar’s role is much bigger than protecting the money for the legal profession? The fact that the public didn’t side nor relate to the lawyers during the impeachment evidently stemmed from this fact, unlike in Pakistan, do you agree?
I think the public perception on the Bar Association has improved especially during the past two months. The public apathy that would have been in existence is very much reduced with the role that we played. Lawyers made a lot of sacrifices and this was not for their personal benefit. This was an instance in which the Bar agitated for a greater cause which did not affect any member personally. A decision that comes out of a court does not affect a lawyer, but the decision will affect the client for the rest of his life. So if he is not able to get a politically unbiased decision in his case and if his rights are not protected in a politically unbiased manner, then the rule of law has broken down. We are fighting for the independence of the judiciary which is for the public good.
" We have over 700 lawyers joining the Bar each year - imagine more foreign lawyers also coming to the country to practice! Can we go to other countries and practice? You have to go there and sit for those exams and only thereafter, practice "
Q: There have been reports that the UNP leader has endorsed the candidacy of Tirantha Walaliyadde; what are your views on this?
Well I heard he had sought the support of the UNP leadership and was informed in no uncertain terms that Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe had moved away from Bar Association politics to national politics. But what I feel is that matters of the Bar should be handled by practicing lawyers. I don’t think that the Bar Association should go behind any political party and get their intervention. Only someone in a weak situation would do that; why would someone bring politics to the door step of the bar when the rule of law is at threat?