Citizens living in the Provinces have much serious thinking to do ahead of the general elections. We hope they will favour those candidates who understand their problems and who seem likely to carry out their promises once they are elected. No two-thirds majority would be required to implement these proposals if the right candidates enter Parliament.
We want justice to prevail up to the far corners of the island, from Killinochi to Hambantota, and we hope that those who will occupy seats in the new Parliament, on both the government and the Opposition sides, will focus on the following important issues. Article 27 of the Constitution declares the need for decentralizing the administration to strengthen and broaden the democratic process. High Courts were set up in the Provinces to bring judicial services closer to the people. These Provincial High Courts are there to serve the people of the Provinces.
The process has been further developed with the decentralisation of civil appeals, which were earlier heard by the Court of Appeal in Colombo. The previous arrangement of hearing these cases in Colombo caused the public delays and expenses.
One area in urgent need of immediate decentralisation pertains to Fundamental Rights, provided under Article 126 of the Constitution. Fundamental Rights presently come under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in Colombo. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has expanded the applicability of these provisions in a series of landmark judgments. It is therefore unfair to deny the people in the Provinces any longer the benefits of these developments.
After the elections, there will likely be an extremely strong Presidency, and possibly an equally strong legislature. Administrative officials will be tempted to indulge in mass-scale violations of the law, under cover of those institutions. Victims of injustice in the Provinces do not have the time or money to travel to Colombo to seek justice and relief. Hence there is a very strong case for decentralising Fundamental Rights jurisdiction.
It is a fact that in the Provinces violations of the law are rampant, especially among Grama Sevakas, District Secretaries, the police and other officials. Violations occur daily, with no chance of redress. Meanwhile, public officials do not bother to acknowledge and reply to letters from the public, and the lawyers are not safe at the hands of the police.
There was the classic case in which a Deraniyagala resident and the Grama Sevakas got together to delete the resident’s wife’s name from the electoral list. Complaints were lodged with Minister Sarath Amunugama, who promptly ordered a probe. We need Members of Parliament like this. Sending quality people to Parliament is far more important than obtaining a two-thirds majority.
The Latin poet Juvenal once asked: “Who watches the watchman?” The notion that the controlling power should not itself come under any control was addressed by Britain’s Lord Chief Justice John Holt (1642-1710), who said: “If public officers will infringe men’s rights, they ought to pay greater damages than other men, to deter and hinder other offices from like offences.”
The jurisdiction of the Provincial High Courts is in urgent need of expansion. The writ of habeas corpus cannot be easily applied in the Provincial High Court. The remedy is very restricted in contrast to the remedy afforded in the Court of Appeal under Article 141 of the Constitution.
For example, if the child of Hambantota-based parents is illegally detained in Jaffna, the parents have to travel to Jaffna to seek the child’s release. And if the place of detention keeps changing, the parents have to travel from one province to another.
Since 1966, suspects accused of offences under the Offensive Weapons Act have to travel to Colombo to move for bail, while the cases are being heard in the Provinces. There is no justification for continuing such procedures.
Lawyers in the outstations should consider backing only election candidates who are committed to supporting fair-minded legislation.