The induction of Upul Jayasuriya as President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) last weekend could mark the beginning of a turbulent period for Sri Lanka’s legal profession, which is seemingly set on a collision course with the Executive and the Legislative of the country.
Jayasuriya was elected President of the BASL in February with a massive majority. His main rival at the election was senior lawyer Tirantha Walaliyadda who campaigned on a platform of reconciliation with the Executive and the Legislature-a slogan that failed miserably.
Jayasuriya’s clear majority meant that the legal profession took a dim view of the recent controversies surrounding the manner in which Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached and Mohan Peiris was hurriedly appointed to that high office.
Jayasuriya maintained a high profile during the impeachment, campaigning relentlessly for Chief Justice Bandaranayake, though he could do little to alter the ultimate outcome. However, his stance during the impeachment no doubt helped him in his bid for the Presidency of the BASL.
It will be recalled that Jayasuriya’s predecessor at the BASL was President’s Counsel and United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha who had previously made a name for himself as a legislator of integrity.
Rajapaksha played a key role in the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and quit the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on matters of principle at a time when parliamentarians from the United National Party (UNP) were queuing up to join the UPFA.
At the height of the impeachment crisis, Rajapaksha’s residence in Nawala was apparently attacked. No one was injured but the incident prompted a visit by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This fuelled speculation that there was some kind of rapprochement between the duo.
Others suggested that Rajapaksha could have been merely following the position taken by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who, though opposed to the manner in which Chief Justice Bandaranayake was impeached, publicly claimed that Parliament took precedence over the Judiciary.
While the BASL did vehemently oppose the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake under Rajapaksha’s stewardship, sections of its membership were critical of Rajapaksha for confining the opposition of the BASL to press statements and resolutions instead of being more proactive.
Rajapaksha’s subsequent decision to step down from the presidency of the BASL after one year took many by surprise. Traditionally, the President of the BASL holds office for two years but in this instance, Rajapaksha chose not to.
It is in such a backdrop that Upul Jayasuriya officially took over the mantle of the BASL presidency last week. If Rajapaksha dealt with crises that cropped up during his tenure with discussion and discreet dialogue, Jayasuriya is a study in contrast: he is more a street-fighter than a diplomat.
Jayasuriya is an old boy of Royal College, Colombo. He entered Law College in 1973 at the age of 17. He joined the Bar in 1976 at the young age of twenty, as one of the youngest attorneys at the time. He rapidly earned a reputation as a dynamic young lawyer even if discretion was not his forte.
He soon aligned himself with the UNP and was a protégé of the then Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. In 1982, at the age of 26, as the then UNP government was nearing the end of its first term, Jayasuriya was appointed as Chairman of the Sri Lanka State Trading Tractor Corporation.
Jayasuriya has previously served the BASL as its secretary between 1991 and 1993, when Ranjith Abeysuriya was its President. It was also a tumultuous period when Ranasinghe Premadasa was in office and there were constant tussles between the Executive and the legal profession.
During this period Jayasuriya, as Secretary of the BASL, was instrumental in filing nearly 3,000 fundamental rights applications before the Supreme Court on behalf of those taken into custody in the 1989 insurrection staged by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
Jayasuriya remains a UNP loyalist but has of late been a vocal critic of party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, questioning his style of leadership. Some of these disputes have ended in legal tussles as well. As such, Jayasuriya is not identified with the Premadasa faction of the party.
Jayasuriya though is no stranger to controversy. His induction last week itself was extremely controversial. It was apparent that tradition has been cast aside because Mohan Peiris was not invited for the occasion despite holding the office of Chief Justice.
Invited instead was Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake who graced the occasion as the 43rd Chief Justice of the country. It was also a reiteration of a previous position taken by the BASL, that it would avoid engagements with Bandaranayake’s successor and would not ‘recognise’ him as such.
With this gesture, Jayasuriya appears to have fired the first salvo. On the one hand he has snubbed the Chief Justice. On the other hand, he is sending a strong message to the powers that be that the rift with the legal profession is far from healed and that he is prepared to take on the government.
Indeed, there were those who said after Jayasuriya’s election to the presidency of the BASL that he has been elected for the purpose of “putting up a fight” with the Executive and the Legislature and that his defiant and abrasive manner won him the BASL election with a vast majority.
Jayasuriya was a “personally unappealing, generally unpopular figure”, a senior lawyer reportedly said and noted that he was elected because “he stood against repression of judicial independence and destruction of the rule of law” which most lawyers considered to be an issue of top priority.
For Jayasuriya, many battles loom ahead. The appointment of Mohan Peiris as Chief Justice had been challenged and the matter has been listed for judicial review. Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake is preparing to face charges of bribery. The UNP is yet to wholeheartedly endorse Jayasuriya’s views.
Lawyers who elected Upul Jayasuriya as their President probably recognise that the coming months will be extremely challenging and crucial for their profession. The going has got tough and it is time for Upul Jayasuriya to get going, to try and restore their profession’s pride and dignity.