SRI LANKA: The boycott of the courts by judges and lawyers 

The attack on the Magistrate’s Court and the High Court in Mannar, allegedly instigated by a powerful government minister, has led to a resolve by law court judges and lawyers to boycott all courts today. The Asian Human Rights Commission welcomes this decision as a very important step in the fight back against the serious undermining of the courts, the judicial independence, the role of lawyers and the very relevance of the law itself in Sri Lanka by the government for a considerable period of time. The only way forward is to fight back vigorously or otherwise legal institutions face the threat of extinction and the legal profession being into a position of irrelevance.

The Judicial Officers Association has resolved that:
(a) They will issue a press release on this
(b) Not to work on one day
(c) Move for contempt of court against the Minister

The Executive Committee of the Bar Association is meeting at 6.30pm today and is likely to adopt the same decisions as the Judicial Officers Association. The government is moving fast to prevent any actions by judges and lawyers on this and particularly to prevent any contempt of court case against the Minister.

The judges have also met the Chief Justice for her advice but information is not yet available.

The incident leading to this decision is as follows: a group of criminals allegedly sponsored by a government minister stoned the High Court and the Magistrate’s Court of Mannar in a coordinated attack yesterday. A very tense situation is reported to be taking place.

According to the information we have received, a mobile fishing hut was attacked by a group of criminals and the Magistrate directed the police to apprehend the culprits. Soon after, a government minister contacted the Magistrate hoping to discourage him from placing legal sanctions on the perpetrators of the crime. Despite his attempts, the Magistrate insisted that the legally proscribed court order be carried out. It is believed that the attack occurred in response to this decision made by the Magistrate.

The crisis the judges, lawyers and the very legal system itself are facing now is the result of a prolonged crisis beginning, particularly with the 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka. The very purpose of this Constitution was to undermine the parliament and the judiciary and to place the executive president above the law. As a result of this Constitution all the public institutions such as the civil service, the police, the office of the Election Commissioner, the Attorney General’s Department and other commissions such as the Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission have all lost their independence.

Today the situation has come to a point where the functioning of the judiciary has become almost impossible. The judges complain of warrants not being executed by the police. The police in turn complain of being brought under the thumbs of politicians and therefore being unable to enforce the law. The people, in turn, complain that there is complicity between the police and the criminals and the criminals and the politicians.

As a consequence of the judiciary being undermined the legal profession has lost much of its fighting capacity and relevance. Many lawyers openly complain of how their role is being increasingly ignored in the legal process.

Under these circumstances a fight by the judges and lawyers is long overdue. In fact, there were instances when the lower court judges came close to striking and due to unfortunate miscalculations this decision was avoided. Once such occasion was when in the 80s stones were thrown at some of the houses of Supreme Court judges. On that occasion it was reported that the lower court judges met and came to a unanimous decision to strike in protest. Unfortunately one well meaning senior judge discouraged this action stating that it may not be appropriate for judges to go on strike and that the Supreme Court would look after its own problem. Though well meaning, this senior judge failed to understand the political importance of protest when faced with direct assaults on the judiciary by the executive. Has this strike taken place the history of Sri Lanka in general and particularly the situation of the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession would have been different to what it is now. The failure to act when the action was imperative has led to the present day crisis of the law in Sri Lanka.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has drawn attention to the crisis in the law in Sri Lanka for several years now. For further information please see: Gyges’ Ring – The 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka-Impunity, Criminal Justice & Human Rights. We hope that even at this late stage the judges and lawyers will fight back with the view to save the legal system and that civil society and the media will support them.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-145-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice,