Down the legal corridors of time
By Laila Nasry
The Superior Courts at Hulftsdorp are in session. The steady stream of flapping black cloaks making their way towards it has visibly reduced to a trickle; only a few litigants continue to linger outside. Seated on a granite bench in the morning sunshine munching betel is a wizened man, clad in a white sarong and white coat, long past its pristine glory. The weathered but alert face, with its fine lines and creased brow, watches the passers- by, occasionally throwing a nod or flashing a toothless smile in acknowledgement of someone familiar.

For 53 years, Hulftsdorp has been the second home of K. Edward Peter, a one-time court 'Arachchi' and well-known figure in legal circles. Over the years he has watched Sri Lanka's 13 Chief Justices take office, two generations of lawyers, first fathers then the sons battle their cases out in courts and today at 78, he is older than the present courts complex and an intrinsic part of its rich legal history.

Peter first came within the legal precincts of Hulftsdorp in the late 1940s as a young delivery boy from the Government Stores supply section, entrusted with the task of distributing the stationery ordered for the judges. A task he soon found to be mundane in contrast to the 'action' that the courts offered. He was intrigued by its proceedings, which at times altered the destinies of men. On such visits from the Government Stores, going into various courtrooms and watching the 'nadukarahamuduruwo' (judges) administer justice became a much looked forward to pastime.

"The more often I came the more I wanted to work here," he recalls amidst chewing betel, its faint odour escaping between words. "So I applied." The mode of recruitment was a far cry from today's slipshod ways. "The selection was subsequent to a CID investigation into our personal lives and an interview by Mr. Hema Basnayake, the then Attorney General who went on to become the Chief Justice."

His first job was at the Attorney General's Department where he spent 12 years. "In the Department, as a peon, I worked for Sam Wijesinha," a Crown Counsel at the time, often travelling with him on circuit. "I learnt a lot from him, to always be straight in whatever you do and to be unafraid of anyone." A trait, he says which saw Sam Wijesinha being appointed the first Crown Counsel to head the Bribery Department established in 1955.

Going on circuit came, to an end with his appointment as 'Arachchi', a job which was more a supervisory position like that of the present day Marshal. "I had to assign the various cases to the relevant courts, appoint officials to oversee the day to day work, wind all the clocks in the courthouse before the start of the day's proceedings, clean the judges' chambers and provide them with adequate security."

Those days the Police Depot had to be called on a daily basis and a request made for them to dispatch the necessary number of officers and as Arachchi, it was Peter's job to do so. "If there were 10 judges sitting on that day I would ask for twelve officers to be sent, two for the court house and one each for the judges."

The enormity of his tasks resulted in Arachchi being granted a 'nila nivase' (official residence) within the court premises itself (coincidentally the quarters had been situated where this interview was held, the present day court room 204). In addition, he received a monthly salary of Rs. 45, which was "more than enough to live a comfortable life".

The physical appearance of Hulftsdorp today is a result of a great metamorphosis over the years. "The old Supreme Court was situated where today's District Court stands and the old District Court was located in today's High Court premises. Even the Remand Prison was at Hulftsdorp before being shifted to Welikada," Peter reminisced like unfolding a long lost blue print. "There was no High Court then nor the new Superior Courts complex. It was in one building that the Attorney General's Department, Justice Ministry and the Supreme Court were housed and the Legal Draftsman's Department was a later addition, in its place there being the Colonial Secretariat, headed by Sir Allen Rose, initially Legal Draftsman, later Attorney General and then Chief Justice."

In 1978, construction work on the new courts complex got underway. "At the foundation laying ceremony, President J. R. Jayewardene and many other dignitaries lit the oil lamp on the stage," recalls Peter who was bestowed a rare honour when the President in turn asked him to light the 'pahan veta' situated at the foot of the stage. "The courts complex was a gift from the Chinese, and it was today's Mayor of Colombo, Prasanna Gunawardene who was chosen as engineer to oversee the construction."

With the new building coming up, he had to move out of his Arachchi quarters, to an area within the old complex, which was not being demolished. "Ekale thiyana gambeera meke ne (this doesn't have the grandeur of the past)," he says in obvious disapproval of the new building favouring the old but regal courthouses with its high ceilings and carved pillars. "Araka dekkama minissu gassila tikak baya vela innawa (people start and get scared when they see it)"

Unlike today, the courtrooms were not air-conditioned. "Mostly in Batticaloa, when we went on circuit we saw this thing called a 'pankawa' where persons working in those courts had to pull a cord and keep fanning the judges and the jury with it. In Hulftsdorp there was no such thing. Instead the ceiling had been built really high for better ventilation."

In the past, proceedings began at 11 a.m. and went on till four in the evening with a recess at 1.30 p.m. The mace bearer and a sword bearer, generally persons of 'Kochchi' origin dressed in full regalia of court officials would accompany the Chief Justice to the Bench as the court crier generally 'kata sadda thiyana ugath minihek' (an educated man with a deep voice) brought the court to order. "Criers la kegahana kota minissu gasilla hitiya. Ethakota thamai usavivala thejasak athivanne (when the criers shout people start and it gives courts its majesty)."

As for today, with cell phones ringing in courtrooms, at times there is hardly a trace of the by- gone grandeur of yesteryear. "Okkoma abavayata gihilla (everything has died off)."

The legal profession in the past was a male dominated one. "All the Proctors and Advocates were male. The court staff was male. The stenographers, mostly Burghers were also all male," he says softly, chuckling. "Sri Nissanka mahattaya, H. W. Jayewardene mahattaya, R.L. Perera mahattaya...okkama hitiye loku pavul vala advocate la (all advocates from leading families)," says Peter rattling off names. "They were all exceptional lawyers but more so honest and respectable men." He says the void created by Colvin R. de Silva's death is a permanent one, for to date he is yet to see a lawyer who can take his place.

The dearth of lady lawyers soon ended with many taking to the profession.

Deraniyagala nona was the first lady lawyer, a barrister, as far as I can remember. But now there are many, as much as their male counterparts, but I think Maureen Seneviratne is the cleverest. No one can come close to her calibre."

In the past lawyers came in rickshaws. "There were no Benz cars like today. There were not more than 25 cars in all." Adds he, "The number of porticos in our courthouses today is due to the fact that the foreign judges used to come in horse-drawn carriages. There was a separate stable for these carriages. The AG's Department today was the former 'Ratha gala' (stables)."

The famous criminal cases are well etched in his mind. "One of the most popular cases was the Sathasivam case where the accused got off without the death penalty. Although Colvin R. de Silva won in court he lost at the election," Peter recalls.

Murder cases and the names of lawyers appearing for the parties come to him with ease. "The Theja Gunawardene case where the Labour Tribune had ridiculed the then Governor General of Ceylon Sir Oliver Goonetileke, why the Kalaththewe case in which Alfred de Zoysa was given the death penalty...the Kularatne appeal," his memory is as good as a digest on criminal law cases.

Recalling the occasions when the jury imposed the death penalty, he says the fans in the courtrooms were switched off; a peon would place a black cloth on the head of the judge, after which, he would get up and give the order. "Once the man has been given the death penalty of hanging, the Registrar will call for a police escort and the 'one nine' will come to take the convict away."

Although some of the traditions and practices are continued today most of them have died over the years. "Today courts are not as interesting. There are far too many land cases."

Unlike today, no one dared to interfere with the administration of justice, be it a Minister or any bigwig and there was no escape for the perpetrators. "Issara nadukarawaru loku punchi kam beluve ne (they didn't look into a person's standing in society). They dispensed justice alike." However today he has lost faith in a system he once respected. "We hear of courts being burnt, records being stolen. There was nothing of the sort in the past and even if there was, the perpetrators would have been nabbed within two to three days."

He sadly admits that there is a steady decline within the system "Those days we could go anywhere and say we are working in the SC. There was so much respect. Mehema kalk gihilla kiyala hithannavath beha. (I can't believe things have reduced to the present position)."

Presently, Peter, married for 51 years and father of three grown daughters, lives in retirement in his house in Thimbirigasyaya. His Arachchi days may well have come to an end but his days in court are far from numbered. For today he is popularly known as 'Mustapha mahattayage arachchi'. "I didn't spend even five days at home before Mr. Faisz Mustapha came and asked me to work for him." Currently he aids Mr. Mustapha's juniors, in preparing for their day in courts.

Looking back at his Arachchi days with both contentment and nostalgia he says, "Den aya vage api paga passe divve ne. Api minissu hambakeruwa. Salli hambakeruwene (Unlike today we didn't go after bribes. We earned people, not money)," a perfect summing up of a life and career within a noble profession.

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