As Sri Lanka prepares for a special National Law Week – special because the foundation of the silent people’s revolution this year was the restoration of the Rule of Law – we need to reflect on the vision and the goals symbolised in the Statue of Lady Justice.
Lady Justice is an allegorical personification of the moral power in the judicial process. The personification of justice balancing the scales dates back to the great era of ancient Egypt. Later, it was linked to the glorious Greek era with its legendary philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates being widely remembered and quoted even today. Ancient Rome also adopted this imagery and our Roman-Dutch Law is linked to such hallowed traditions or principles.
During the past four decades and especially during the past four years of the previous regime, we saw a disastrous breakdown of the Rule of Law with the independence of the Judicial Service being undermined and Police stations being turned into virtual branch offices, if not torture houses, of the ruling party. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Sri Lanka’s premier body of lawyers, played a vibrant role in the campaign that led to the change of January 8. The BASL came to the forefront especially during what most people saw as the political impeachment of the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, who dared to challenge the government at that time. With her removal, we saw the politicisation of the Supreme Court also, with one VVIP reportedly boasting he could influence or change the judgment with a telephone call.
Thankfully, with the enactment of the 19th Amendment in April, the appointment of the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions in September, Sri Lanka has taken significant steps towards the restoration of the Rule of Law, the independence of the judicial and Police Services. In the afterglow of this, the BASL, along with the Justice Ministry and the Legal Aid Commission will be playing a pivotal and practical role in the National Law Week from November 23 to November 29.
At a news conference on Wednesday, BASL Chairman U. R. de Silva said the National Law Week – on the theme ‘Towards a Just and Law Abiding Society’ – would help the people, especially the impoverished and marginalised, to become aware of their legal rights and the right to justice.
We need to remember that, while the law is important, the dimension of Justice is much higher. In the broadest perspective, we know that the solution to poverty alleviation is not just charity, the trickle-down theory or the crumbs from the table – but justice, which means a structural change to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Thus, the people need to be educated on the vital difference between charity and justice. One historic instance might help clarify this. In July 1980, thousands of public servants who joined a strike were sacked. After a long political battle, an agreement was reached to pay compensation to the sacked workers. The widely-respected Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe summed up the deal by saying it was the day when justice ended and charity began.
The BASL Chairman said on Wednesday there had been several complaints by people who had been treated unlawfully by the Police, and most of these complaints came from low-income or impoverished people. This shows that during recent years, the law had become not just an ordinary ass but the ass of the rich and ruling elite, led by wealthy politicians and officials corrupted by the greed to become wealthier.
The BASL, reaching out to the impoverished people, has invited those who need special assistance in handling their legal matters to contact the association on its hotlines 011-3133864 and 011-3133862 before the Law Week begins. BASL President Geoffrey Alagaratnam said legal awareness programmes would be carried out in 55 different locations in several districts.
With the Parliamentary Opposition struggling in a web of confusion, the people and civic action groups are now being called upon to play the role of the watchdogs of democracy. We hope the practical dimensions of the National Law Week and other factors would lead to a time when we could say, with Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel that there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.