Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, said the legendary Martin Luther King, Jr, with the latest film on his life being nominated for the Best Picture Academy Awards this year and breaking Box Office records on his commemoration day last Monday. From the traditional home of justice, Aristotle has told us that at our best, people are the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice we are the worst.
It is in the enlightenment of such wisdom that we need to reflect on a crisis that has arisen in this hopeful new era of good governance and democracy or ‘maithri palanaya.’ Tragically, the crisis is shaking one of the time-tested pillars of democracy and if a fair verdict is not given soon, the damage caused may go beyond repair.
At the centre of the issue is Chief Justice Mohan Peiris who in January 2013 was handpicked for this post by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the controversial aftermath of the impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake which was seen as being unethical by many.
The country’s premier legal body, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has been in direct conflict with the Chief Justice and called for his resignation after the inauguration of the New Democratic Front (NDF), the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.
The new Government sent a clear signal to the Chief Justice when President Sirisena on January 9 decided to take his oaths not before the CJ but before the senior Supreme Court judge K. Sripawan.
On Wednesday, Mr. Peiris had indicated he would be resigning with the BASL insisting he should do so to restore the independence, honour and dignity of the Supreme Court and the judicial service. But the Daily Mirror in a front page report yesterday quoted BASL President Upul Jayasuriya as saying Mr. Peiris had agreed to resign if he was given a diplomatic post in Rome.
“How can the Chief Justice of the country ask for a diplomatic appointment in return for his resignation? With these new developments we are even more determined that he should leave this position immediately,” Mr. Jayasuriya said.
Earlier on Wednesday Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne – a key figure in the new all-party government – told a media conference that Mr. Peiris had met the Prime Minister and agreed to resign. The CJ was reported to have been given an appointment to meet the President on Thursday. He turned up, but left before he met the President, after he allegedly got a telephone call, Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksha said yesterday.
According to the Constitution, the President cannot remove the Chief Justice and it could be done only by passing an impeachment motion in Parliament. We saw how justice hurried became justice miscarried when the Rajapaksa regime for obvious political reasons rushed through the impeachment motion against CJ 43 Shirani Bandaranayake, without giving her a fair hearing. This came in for severe condemnation in Sri Lanka and from the international community.Apparently, the new National Unity Government would not wish to be dragged into such a legal quagmire which might also lead to a diversion of attention from vital pledges in the 100-day programme.
Top legal analysts have suggested that the BASL should boycott cases that are taken up before the CJ. The BASL has said that this might adversely affect litigants but the legal analysts ask whether it is more a case of affecting lawyers’ fees.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has said “O Judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts and people have lost their reason!” The Caesars have gone and we hope Sri Lanka would be spared from such a calamity.