There is a feeling among a section of the public that the law’s delays were one of the reasons for widespread public disapproval, disappointments and even anger which led to a massive protest vote against the government at the February 10 elections to 340 local councils. It was an important aspect of the verdict given by the court of the sovereign people.
During the campaign for the January 8, 2015 presidential election, the then rainbow coalition leaders alleged that the Rajapaksa government’s VIP politicians, top officials and lackeys had plundered billions of dollars from public funds.
But more than three years after taking office, the number of cases brought to courts has been few with the delay being attributed to various reasons. President Maithripala Sirisena in recent months has been publicly accusing some UNP leaders of deliberately delaying or blocking these corruption or fraud cases. The President did not give reasons why they were doing so.
As for streamlining and expediting the courts procedure relating to serious cases of corruption or fraud, what should have been done in 2015 was presented as a draft bill only last week.
According to the draft, as reported, the new Permanent High Courts at Bar, will be empowered to try, hear and determine more than 60 offences, including those committed under the Foreign Exchange Act, Registered Stocks and Securities Ordinance and the Local Treasury Bills Act.
They will also try offences such as money laundering and those related to bribery of judicial officers or Members of Parliament, acceptance of gratification by MPs, using influence in regard to contracts, tenders and dealings with governments.
The draft says, the new High Courts will be set up under an amendment to the Judicature Act and will make provisions for trial before them to be held upon indictment by the Attorney General or the Director General for the Prevention of Bribery and Corruption. Hearings will be held and concluded expeditiously with evidence to be recorded from day to day, to ensure speedy disposal.
The jurisdiction of the court will apply to offences committed by any person wholly or partly in Sri Lanka or by a Sri Lankan citizen outside the country or on board or in relation to any ship or aircraft.
The High Courts will consist of three Judges sitting together. They will be nominated by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) from among the Judges of the High Court with the JSC nominating one judge as chairperson.
The draft Bill also empowers the Justice Minister to increase the number of such courts in consultation with the JSC.
Where a new judge has been nominated, it will not be necessary for any evidence taken prior to such nomination to be retaken and the Permanent High Court at Bar will be entitled to continue the trial from the stage at which it was immediately prior to such nomination.
In another important change, the draft says that the inability of a particular attorney to appear on a particular date for any reason including engagement to appear on that date in any other court or tribunal, shall not be a ground for postponing the date of commencement of the trial or be regarded as an exceptional circumstance which requires the postponement of the trial.
To further expedite the case any appeal will need to be made directly to the Supreme Court instead of going through a long process in the Court of Appeal.
Initially three such courts are likely to be appointed by April this year while the Prime Minister has said he hoped the number of these special High Courts could be increased to five so that major corruption or fraud cases would be completed within months and politicians or officials involved in corruption, then or now would be brought to justice and the money recovered and given back to the people.