If someone was to ask who the wittiest lawyer I had met was and who had the gift of repartee par excellence in the Bar, my answer would be Lal Perera. He was such an excellent raconteur that none would leave the inner table, at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court, when he was seated there. A [...]

Sunday Times 2

Humour in black coat: Lal Perera


If someone was to ask who the wittiest lawyer I had met was and who had the gift of repartee par excellence in the Bar, my answer would be Lal Perera. He was such an excellent raconteur that none would leave the inner table, at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court, when he was seated there. A senior would crack a dry joke and only he would laugh, while the others laughed at him behind his back over his foolish joke. It was completely different with Lal.

Once, Lal was in London, supposedly studying to become a solicitor. He worked as a clerk in a law firm where his wit was known even to his boss. His boss became his drinking partner. One day at Lal’s residence, they got drunk. Next day, when Lal got up, he found his boss had left. He got dressed and got to the law firm as fast as the underground took him. As soon as he sat at his table, came a note from his boss and drinking partner: “You are five minutes late” though actually he was more than half an hour late.

Lal promptly wrote back: “I would have been on time but for the man who was with me last night, instead of pissing on the commode he pissed on the floor; Therefore if you cannot give me five minutes grace; you are a disgrace.”

Lal got through his solicitors and till he came to Sri Lanka he worked in the same firm. His boss, he said, got cirrhosis in his brains. “Surely there is no cirrhosis in the brain.”

“Suddhas drink beer. What I preferred was their hooch, which comes in bottles in the form of ‘Teachers’. So, he also gave up drinking beer and loved Teachers. As a result, his liver got corroded by drinking and his brain had also got corroded.”

“How?” I asked.

“By excessively laughing, and falling in love with Teachers. Poor man, I could not go to his funeral.

I asked why.

“I heard Stella (his wife) was waiting with a broomstick to assault some Asian guy who was daily drinking with her husband.”

In court, Lal would appear for a notorious criminal. Knowing that the odds were overwhelmingly against his client, he would make the whole Court, including the judges, laugh. Everyone, including the police, would forget the seriousness of the case and laugh, and he would win the day!

H. Joe Perera was an MMC for the Mutwal Ward. He was also a respected senior lawyer, but had a short temper. He would calm down quickly and apologise for his burst of anger. He was a Catholic (Karawe) — and Lal, a Goigama Buddhist, poked fun at him making reference to his caste.

One morning, Joe came steaming into the Lawyers’ room with his books, and shouted at Lal, “Ado Lal! Did you tell some of my clients who came in search of me that I had gone fishing in the morning?”

As usual, Lal, was surrounded by other lawyers, who were laughing at his jokes. He got up from his seat without showing any emotion. “Yes, I said so. I thought that every day, in the morning, you, dressed like Govigama and Moor fishermen, go to the breakwater to fish,” and he pointed at M. H. Amith, a senior lawyer, who was a calm and collected person and respected by all parties. His past time was angling at the breakwater. The whole Chamber laughed at Joe and Joe too could not help laughing. He laughed the most.

Then Lal said, “I also told the client that you go deep fishing to earn your daily bread, wearing a sarong in the night.” All of us laughed again, but this time Joe was seething with anger. You could have observed that he was furious and sweating. However, he controlled his temper, as he knew that he had made a fool of himself by losing his temper. He went to court and came to the lunch room. “Ado Lal (Govigama) look at your plate of rice. The piece of fish is on top of rice. This clearly shows the superiority of the Karawas. Everyone laughed and Lal laughed the loudest.

Somasiri Dehipitiya , a famous character actor, was charged by the police for theft of some tar barrels from the Public Works Department (PWD) where he worked as an overseer. Unlike today, even a good character actor like Dehipitiya could not live purely on the income from acting. They did other jobs for financial security. When I accepted the brief, I knew that it was a difficult case and I was afraid that I would not do justice to Dehipitiya, the second accused in the case, and that he may be found guilty and go to jail. Therefore, I thought of retaining senior counsel Ananda Wijesekera, who later became a President’s Counsel.

The first accused, the storekeeper, was defended by Joe Perera. Roland Anthony appeared for the third accused and Lal Perera appeared for the fourth accused, the watcher.

The evidence was that the watcher with the connivance of the storekeeper had arranged to remove the tar barrels from the premises of the PWD. The watcher had found a buyer and had roped in the storekeeper and others to commit this theft. At the end of the trial, Chief Magistrate T. B. Ellepola called for the defence.

It was usual to request for a postponement, when the magistrate call for evidence on behalf of the accused. But, Lal got up and made no such application instead made submission about a coconut theft case, which had just preceded this case, before the same magistrate. He told the magistrate, “I was privy to the case you heard a little while ago and heard Your Honour deciding to sentence the coconut thief to two years. I am distressed that the maximum sentence for coconut theft is only two years. Although the accused did not have a previous record of theft, you were only able to send him for two years. I know Sir, coconut theft is a serious crime and it is rarely that the police are able to apprehend suspects, as the watchers and the police get a lot of the loot. Naturally the owners of coconut estates in the North Western Province cannot even afford to fertilise them. Also, there is no point in going to the police. If the watcher shoots, and if the thief is injured, he will be charged with attempted murder.”

The magistrate smiled and acknowledged the submissions he made and said, “In my long career as a magistrate you are the only lawyer who saw the sheer difficulties that plantation owners face, when these ruffians come and steal these coconuts. I am happy that although you live in Colombo, you appreciate the law and order status and that these scoundrels must be punished severely.”

Lal then said, “Sir, it is my only regret for such a dastardly crime the legislature, in it unholy wisdom, has prescribed only two years. Sir, we were all aghast, wondering what a coconut theft had to do with the theft of tar barrels. “Now look at my fourth accused. He is the watcher and what did he do? A Lorry came and he opened the gates and when the lorry passed the gate he closed it for security. Then he opened and closed the gates when the lorry went out. That is his job and my poor man is charged with having stolen some tar barrels. The magistrate nodded in agreement and looked at the police and said, “What have you got to say about the fourth accused?”
The police were dumbstruck and started mumbling something.

The magistrate: “You have failed to prove this case against the watcher beyond reasonable doubt, I am acquitting the fourth accused.”
Lal smiled and bowed to the magistrate about four times and walked out. We were all stunned and nonplussed about what happened in court. When we walked out Lal looked at Joe and said, “You know the law but I know the judge.”

“What do you know about the judge?”

“This man owns about 50 acres of coconut in Kurunegala and while he is sitting in judgement, all the coconuts are plucked and stolen by his watcher and others. For him the greatest crime is theft of coconut.” He then laughed and made a funny gesture at Joe and ran away to another court.

On the next day when the case was called and the magistrate called for the defence, Joe Perera said, Sir, you have called for our defence but the biggest culprit has been let out.”

“What nonsense, Mr. Perera, I do not acquit people like that.”

“Sir, you have acquitted the fourth accused, the watcher who was instrumental in the entire theft. If he is acquitted Sir, I do not think you can convict our man because all the evidence is against the fourth accused and not against the others. ”

The magistrate looked at the previous day’s proceedings and found that he could not convict any one for theft and quite unwillingly acquitted the others, including my client.

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