The restoration of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary were among the important promises made by the rainbow coalition when President Maithripala Sirisena took office on January 8, 2015. While the National Government has taken some important steps to implement these promises there is a long way to go and some of these issues were spotlighted during the National Law Week which was marked from February 27 to March 5.
The newly-appointed Chief Justice Priyasath Dep, speaking at one of the main ceremonies held at the auditorium of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), stressed that justice would be justice only when all people, mainly the poor and the voiceless, had access to it. The Chief Justice said that although new court buildings had been set up and existing ones renovated with high technological facilities also, having physical access to court buildings and having access to justice were two different things.
He was speaking in an era where social analysts say that largely due to the globalised capitalist market economic system and its negative consequences, Sri Lanka’s two main professions – the medical service and the legal service -- have to a large extent become big businesses. Social scientists have warned that if medicine is put in the market, the poor will be left to die. Similarly if the law is put in the market the poor will be denied access to justice. Unfortunately this seems to have happened and the National Government needs to bring about some major structural changes in both these essential services to make them accessible to all people, specially the poor. Otherwise the law will be no ordinary ass but the rich people’s ass, the social analysts say.
Mr. Dep, widely respected for his outstanding service or more than 30 years in the Attorney General’s Department and in the judicial service, said the people need to be made aware that litigation was not the only option. He was apparently referring to some court cases which go on for years and years if not a decade or more. Some cynics often quote the story of a well known lawyer who appeared mainly in testamentary cases over land disputes. When his son passed out as a lawyer he was given one of these land cases to handle. The son finished it in one session, came home and boasted to the father that he had finished in a matter of hours the case which his father had dragged on for several years. The father retorted, “You fool I educated and made you a lawyer on the money made from this case and you go and settle it within hours”.
Chief Justice Dep speaking in the presence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other leading personalities said the people need to be made aware that besides litigation there were other processes such as mediation, conciliation or arbitration.
He also commended the initiatives taken during the National Law Week to provide free legal advice and legal aid to low-income families which had difficulties in retaining lawyers.
We hope the Justice Ministry, the BASL and other institutions would act on the new CJ’s advice. They need to take urgent, practical and effective steps to see that the impoverished, oppressed and often voiceless people have ready and free access to justice and are also made aware of such facilities.
If justice without mercy is tyranny, then justice that is denied to the poor is justice miscarried.