SRI LANKA: Parliament must debate the conviction of former magistrate — Asian Human Rights Commission

On 27 March, the Mathara High Court sentenced former magistrate, Ms. Shyamini Mihinchiarachchi, to 45 years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 60,000 (USD 600) on charges of entering false information in court documents pertaining to fines; fraud and soliciting bribes. The court charged Mihinchiarachchi for these offences while she was serving as a magistrate at Galle Magistrate’s Court. On default of payment of the fine, the convict will have to undergo an additional term of imprisonment for 28 months.

This is the first time in the 200-year-old history of the Sri Lankan judiciary, that a judicial officer has been sentenced to such a long term of imprisonment. The case only received short press coverage despite of its importance, its implications upon the country’s judiciary as a whole, and to the public confidence in the administration of justice.

The former magistrate convicted of making false entries in the fines’ registry with an intention to misappropriate money, was not present in the court for the hearing of the case. In all likelihood, the former judge, who was also charged for soliciting bribes might have fled the country to evade arrest and imprisonment.

This case requires a response from the Ministry of Justice; the Judicial Service Commission, which is the highest body responsible for the discipline of judicial officers; as well as from the media and the public. In fact, the case deserves a parliamentary debate, given the adverse impact corruption and fraud by a judicial officer has, on the administration of justice and the rule of law.

The incident is not minor or insignificant. Making false entry in court records, fraud and soliciting of bribes by court officials is now a practice in the country. Entering false information about fines would mean that the exact amount, publically announced as the fine and paid by the accused, is not recorded in the books. To make illegal profit, the figure entered must be lower than the actual fine announced in the court.

The fact that such manipulations of court records are possible is a clear indication of the lapse in the system of supervision. It is the duty of those who are in charge of the monitoring of the system to ensure that such things do not take place and if it happens, is stopped within the shortest possible time. This has obviously not happened in this instance.

What is more worrying is the fraud that has gone on for a long time and the soliciting of bribes in courts. Once again, such allegations, now proven in a High Court, cannot be treated as unimportant. It indicates the lack of inquiries into earlier complaints that under the circumstances may have been numerous. Had there been a proper complaint receiving mechanism, which took prompt actions and proper investigations of the complaints, this situation could not have gone on to the extent that it caused a scandal of high magnitude.

The fear of contempt of court often prevents the media from publically discussing allegations of corruption against the judiciary. The suppression of the freedom of expression concerning any subject of public importance has disastrous effects. The misuse of the contempt of court doctrine has created fears against public discussions on judicial misconduct. The practice of tampering with court documents, use of judicial office for fraud and for soliciting bribes shows how the restriction on the freedom of expression has degenerated institutions in Sri Lanka.

The case of Mihinchiarachchi is no exception. Its only uniqueness is that even after the failures, investigations were held and a judge was charged and convicted. There are complaints from many lawyers that their clients often inquire about their personal connections with the presiding judge, and if the lawyers express displeasure of these questions, it is common for the clients to leave them and to look for another lawyer who entertains such illegal advances. It is to be hoped that this case will provide an opportunity for a thorough review of abuse of powers by some judges and for a genuine review of the circumstances that allow the practice of the soliciting of bribes.

Most importantly, the people of Galle deserve an explanation about what has happened in their court and it is the duty of the Ministry of Justice to provide it and to encourage the citizens to participate in a discussion as to avoid similar situations in the future.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-076-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,