The President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) U.R. de Silva in an interview with the Daily Mirror spoke on issues related to litigation, dealing with suspects in Police custody and the removal of MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe from the post of Justice Ministry. The following are excerpts of the interview:
- They will provide for a lawyer to meet a particular suspect in police custody which is helpful in obtaining all the details as far as the suspect is considered. It will include the time of his arrest, whether he will be produced before court etc. With the permission of the OIC, we will be able to meet the suspect concerned for legal consultation.
- They came out with the difficulties they face when working. They lack even office space. There aren’t even enough office rooms for senior officials to discharge their duties. Three state counsels, sometimes, serve in one cubicle. Though there are files referred to the Attorney General for advice, there aren’t enough state counsels.
Q In the aftermath of the removal of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe from the post of Justice Minister and the appointment of a successor, how do you view this situation?
Before his (Rajapakshe) removal, he was working very hard. We were working together. He extended all the support to Sri Lanka Bar Association. We wanted to enhance the knowledge of members. We wanted to curtail delays in the laws being implemented and to address concerns of litigants. He asked us to submit our proposals. He acted on our proposals. He travelled across the country while working for the Bar Association to help ordinary people involved in legal cases. The establishment of more and more court houses, we thought, would help poor litigants. That was the view of the Minister. We also helped him. We are satisfied with the process of building court houses. The lack of High Court judges is also a problem in our country. Action was taken to increase the cadre. He did it by adding ten more to the cadre in consultation with the Bar Association.
There is another important point. Earlier, we couldn’t meet suspects in police custody. We engaged different authorities. It wasn’t successful. Thereafter, we made representations. We asked for a special law to be enacted. There are legal provisions being worked out in consultation with the Bar Association. They will provide for a lawyer to meet a particular suspect in police custody which is helpful in obtaining all the details as far as the suspect is considered. It will include the time of his arrest, whether he will be produced before court etc. With the permission of the OIC, we will be able to meet the suspect concerned for legal consultation.
Q As far as the removal of the Minister is concerned, what is the position of the Bar Association?
We aren’t in a position to say anything. We are very sad that he was removed. It’s up to the President to decide. He has the authority to do so. After consulting the Prime Minister, he has taken such a decision. It’s a political decision which nobody can challenge. He never resigned. He was removed. The President can take such decision according to the Constitution.
Q But, you are sad about it?
Yes. That’s because he has done a lot for the profession, litigants, and judiciary. The issue or the allegation is that he violated the collective Cabinet responsibility. That’s up to the Cabinet and the Government to decide on. We have no say in that regard. If the new Minister is ready to work with the Bar Association, we will be happy. We have no political agenda. Ours is a non-political body. Earlier, both the President and the Prime Minister assured us that they wouldn’t interfere with the work of the Bar Association.
Q However, there were allegations that the former Minister wasn’t expediting the legal process against wrongdoers of the former rule. What’s your view?
That allegation was levelled at him before he was removed. We categorically said that the Minister couldn’t intervene in this case. The Attorney General’s Department is an independent body. Right throughout, it has worked independently. As such, if somebody interferes, it’s improper and unacceptable. It’s said that a lot of files were handed over to the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). The FCID says files were referred to the Attorney General’s Department, but no indictment was served. We made representations to the Attorney General’s Department. We discussed. They came out with the difficulties they face when working. They lack even office space. There aren’t even enough office rooms for senior officials to discharge their duties.
Three state counsels, sometimes, serve in one cubicle. Though there are files referred to the Attorney General for advice, there aren’t enough state counsels. Interviews are being conducted for recruitment. Another problem is the lack of translators in the Department. We discussed these issues with the Minister then. The Minister, at the time, remedied the situation to some extent. Actually, the Minister was also concerned about the delays. He had complained that some of the State Counsels were lethargic and weren’t working efficiently.
Q There was the allegation that the then Minister was delaying cases related to the particular members of the previous Government. What do you say about this?
It’s incorrect. We know that a lot of people languish in remand prison without indictments being served. Those aren’t political cases. They are coming under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, emergency regulations or the normal law. These cases should also be expedited. As a whole, we want to expedite all, not a few matters concerning some only. That is what we informed the Attorney General. In some cases, even the police haven’t submitted files though they claim otherwise. The Attorney General can’t openly say these things.
Q There’s a lot of criticism aimed at the Attorney General’s Department and the judiciary by politicians. What is the position of the Bar Association?
The Attorney General’s Department or the Bar Association isn’t concerned about political cases. There are delays in litigations in general due to various reasons- the lack of high courts etc. Some are concerned about certain political cases. Some major cases are being heard by the Colombo High Court. We have seven High Courts in Colombo. Some cases have reached the tail end now. It’s wrong to say that such cases were delayed by the Minister concerned. The Minister can’t certainly interfere in these cases.
Q It’s true that the Minister can’t interfere in that manner. But, he can improve the efficiency in judicial administration leading to the speedy dispensing with of cases in courts. What is your view?
When we say cases are delayed, what is the action we expect? The Minister only can inform the Attorney General and the Judicial Services Commission to speed up matters. That’s all. Then, he knows the actual problems. Once those were known, he had responded. It doesn’t amount to interference.
Q There’s a proposal to dedicate a separate court to hear identified cases. What is your response?
We are totally against it. You can’t do it. Earlier also, there was a suggestion to hear drug related cases in one court house. It wasn’t successful. There was a proposal to hear bribery cases in the similar fashion. It wasn’t successful. Finally, we had a court dedicated to hear cases related to terrorism. It wasn’t also successful.
The Colombo High Court has seven court houses. It’s very easy to expedite these matters assigning the cases to all the court houses. What they propose is to have a separate court to hear the cases related to the previous rule. It’s wrong constitutionally. There aren’t provisions to have a separate court for separate people.
- Bar Association sad about Wijeyadasa’s removal
- Says he did a lot of work for the legal profession, judiciary etc
- Ready to work with new Justice Minister
- There are delays in dispensing with legal cases in general
- It isn’t a phenomenon related to some specific cases only
- Subject Minister can’t interfere with judicial process
- Ranjan Ramanayake’s remarks detrimental to independent judiciary and dignity of legal profession
- Fears whether it will give an impetus to the call for foreign judges
Q There’s also a proposal for trials-at-bar. What is your response?
Of course, the Attorney General has to decide, and the Chief Justice should offer consent. That is a judicial matter. If it’s a case warranting a trial-at-bar, it should be requested by the Attorney General and considered by the Chief Justice. After that only, the trial-at-bar can be constituted. You can’t have Trial at Bar related to each and every case.
Q How does political criticism affect the independence of judiciary?
We are concerned about the criticism made by State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake who called lawyers and judges a corrupt lot. That affects the independence of the judiciary. People will think that the judiciary isn’t the proper avenue for redress. If they think the judicial personnel are corrupt, they will lose faith in the system. Then, law and order will collapse. People might take law into their own hands. He should be punished. Politicians can’t make haphazard statements without any merit.
There can be one or two persons not doing the job properly. That doesn’t mean the whole system is corrupt. We are happy with the current status of the judiciary. We want to improve it.
Q There is strong opposition against the participation of foreign judges in hearing cases here as envisaged in the UNHRC resolution. Now, it’s said that international judicial personnel and prosecutors will participate as observers. What is the stand of the BASL?
They can observe the situation, certainly. We can seek their views. We don’t need those people to conduct the cases or investigations. Today, a Government member levells criticism against the majority of judges and lawyers stating that they are corrupt. We fear whether this will give the international community the impression that there is no independent judiciary here. Foreign countries will justify their position referring to criticism levelled against the judiciary by our own parliamentarians. From the very beginning, we were opposed to foreign judges.