SRI LANKA: Chief Justice cursing the corrupt without taking legal action indicates justice system failure

A statement made by Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva at a recent public meeting is causing many comments, both public and private, on the state of the judiciary and rule of law in the country.

In his statement the Chief Justice is reported to have cursed the Sri Lankan police as being highly corrupt and that he had no faith in them, saying that “they would die after prolonged agony” (Sunday Times, April 23, 2006). He went on to say that their children would also face the consequences. He is further quoted to have said, “The police ask whether I want their protection but I say no. I have to be protected from them. That is why I don’t get their security. I know them very well as I have been in my profession for 38 years.” 

Coming from the Chief Justice this is a tremendous indictment against the country’s prime law enforcement agency. The Chief Justice went on to say that other officers such as Customs Officers and Motor Vehicle Officers as well as some lawyers fall into the same category.  

No one would disagree that corruption has seeped into all areas of life in the country, and is most manifest in the country’s law enforcement agency. Many will go further and attribute the corruption and the collapse of standards to the judiciary also. Two senior most judges of the Supreme Court, who were members of the three-member Judicial Service Commission (JSC), the third member of which is the Chief Justice himself, resigned recently, mentioning objections on the basis of conscience as the reason for their resignation. In short, these two senior judges were of the view that in their working relationship with the Chief Justice, matters of conscience of a serious nature had arisen, due to which they did not want to continue in office.

For an ignorant citizen, unable to cope with life due to massive corruption and violence, to curse is no surprise. In fact, a chorus of such curses can be heard throughout the country. In all areas of the prevailing political, social and legal systems in the country, large numbers of victims are created everyday. Unable to find any form of redress or relief they are compelled to curse society and their misfortune. The Chief Justice, however, is not an ordinary citizen.  He holds the highest judicial office in the country. Furthermore, as the Chairperson of the JSC, he is responsible for the discipline of all judicial officers. The Chief Justice is therefore–both legally and morally–the leader of the judiciary and should be the symbol of justice in any country.

The purpose of the Chief Justice is not to curse, but to promote and enforce the rule of law by means of effective judicial action. In all systems based on the rule of law, the assurance of a functioning society is in the hands of the judiciary; the judiciary is therefore expected to defeat corruption and all other lapses of law. The judiciary is a central aspect of the way the state keeps its authority over the lawless and the corrupt. A society where the judiciary is incapable or unwilling to exercise its authority is doomed.

The very fact that the Chief Justice’s statements about the police and other authorities is true and represents the common perception of the people makes his attitude even worse. When ordinary Sri Lankans want to curse their enemies and those responsible for their misfortunes, they go to local ‘priests’ popularly known as ‘katadiyas’. These persons turn people’s misery into profits by becoming professional cursers. Such a person however, is usually regarded in a derogatory manner by society, viewed as a social evil. 

Being the country’s Chief Justice requires that he take far more effective action that offering curses at society’s ills. When a physician, whose job it is to cure illness, begins instead only to curse the illness, what can be the fate of the patients? It is time for the more enlightened sections of society and responsible institutions to seriously examine how judicial authority can be re-established, as well as the authority of other state institutions such as the police. 

Sri Lankan society, or at least the major political parties of Sri Lankan society, considered this issue to a limited extent in 2001, which was when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was discussed and adopted in Parliament. The central issue then was how basic public authorities in the country could be revitalised by the creation of independent agencies to supervise them. However, even this limited intervention was given up during the last year when the appointment of the Constitutional Council was abandoned. This abandonment will worsen the situation that the Chief Justice himself is cursing.

The last resort in the protection of a society is the president. The president should listen to the curses of his Chief Justice and ask himself whether or not the society of which he is the leader is in serious trouble. However, perhaps in such circumstances it is the people themselves who must make intervene. Ultimately, people do not profit from a cursing Chief Justice, but they still need a judiciary, particularly a higher judiciary that is capable of reasserting judicial authority. A cursing Chief Justice may be a reflection of a society that is seriously demoralised. Each day lost without people’s intervention will remain a day that the country can only curse about. The first intervention should consist of the implementation of the 17th Amendment: the proper appointment of the Constitutional Council. This may be a small step, but it is a thousand times better than mere cursing.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-098-2006
Countries :
Issues : Judicial system, Rule of law,