By Nihal Seneviratne A few days after Anura Dias Bandaranaike had assumed office as Speaker, I had a phone call from him asking me to work on his staff. I thanked him very much but declined. But he was persistent, calling me frequently over the next few days insisting that I work with him as [...]


Parliament vs Supreme Court: Speaker Anura Bandaranaike’s historic ruling


By Nihal Seneviratne

A few days after Anura Dias Bandaranaike had assumed office as Speaker, I had a phone call from him asking me to work on his staff. I thanked him very much but declined. But he was persistent, calling me frequently over the next few days insisting that I work with him as he needed someone to advise him in his new role as Speaker. I had known Anura well from my time as a parliamentary official and was impressed by his friendly and charming manner. Given his insistence, I found it difficult to repeatedly say ‘No’ and finally agreed.

Anura Dias Bandaranaike

So there I was back in my old surroundings. Anura had made special arrangements to give me a room close to his Chambers. The Speaker’s Chambers were on the same floor as the Secretary-General’s room on the second floor. So I was back in familiar territory. Mine was a new post in the parliamentary staff cadre and I later learned that he had consulted his mother and his sister, the then President, and had prepared a Cabinet Paper to have my appointment approved.

Working with him was pleasant though I was embarrassed when he kept asking me for advice on procedural matters, by-passing the Secretary-General and his two other Deputies. As I always recognised their rightful roles, it was possible to iron out these wrinkles gently.

An unusual, yet important issue arose in June 2001. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court issued a Stay Order restraining the Speaker from appointing a Select Committee to inquire into the conduct of the Chief Justice consequent to an Impeachment motion against the CJ being forwarded to the Speaker in terms of the Constitution and Standing Orders. This unprecedented move by the Supreme Court to intervene and interfere with the proceedings of Parliament had to be ruled on.

A few days after the order was served on the Speaker, I had with his permission travelled with my family on a short vacation to Malaysia. In the middle of this holiday, our High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur conveyed to me an urgent request from the Speaker asking me to return immediately. I had no option but to cut short my holiday and return to Colombo.

On my return, Anura had two lengthy discussions with me about the matter that had arisen. I advised him that there was no way the Supreme Court could interfere with the workings of Parliament, the supreme legislative body in the country. I supported my view citing the Standing Orders, Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act and numerous abstracts from relevant judicial cases in the United Kingdom. Anura, having listened to me very closely, said he would like to consult his good friend, the late H. L. de Silva, PC, an eminent lawyer who was without doubt in a class of his own.

We both met Mr. de Silva by appointment in his chambers and presented our problem. He listened closely and at the end of a long discussion said he would provide us a written legal opinion. His comprehensive opinion was the same as ours. He cited all the cases and more than we had cited, but in a much more precise and logical manner.

Armed with this document, I prepared a six-page ruling which was read out to the House on June 20, 2001. This historic decision reaffirmed and upheld the supremacy of Parliament and was the first such ruling that upheld Parliamentary supremacy over the Judiciary in the country.

Having cited in his Ruling, six to eight judicial decisions and rulings both in Sri Lanka and Britain, he concluded thus:

1. The Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue interim orders restraining the Speaker of Parliament in respect of the steps he is empowered to take under Standing Order 78A.
2. The aforesaid interim order dated June 6, 2001 is not binding on the Speaker of Parliament.
3. There is no legal obligation to comply with the said order.

He wound up with the words:
“In conclusion might I be permitted, on a personal note, to say that I am indeed proud to belong to a family that has had the unparalleled and unique privilege of continuously serving the Legislature of this nation since 1932 – for nearly 70 years. Therefore, I deem it a singular honour that fate has bestowed on me, as Speaker of this august Assembly, by offering me the historic opportunity of reaffirming the principles underpinning the supremacy of Parliament.”

This ruling received much ovation from all quarters in Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, Canada, India and Australia. At his request a printed copy of the ruling was sent to most Commonwealth Parliaments around the world who acknowledged it with grateful thanks.

Anura sent me a copy of the ruling, adding in his own handwriting that this ruling would not have been made but for my efforts and inputs. I was very touched by this gesture.

I enjoyed very much the time I spent working with Anura. He was a raconteur par excellence and we had long conversations of the halcyon days, men and matters and of some present day politicians. He was a film enthusiast and we talked also of the old films we had seen.

Often he would invite me to his elegant home designed by Geoffrey Bawa, and over a meal have long and interesting chats. Doctors who were advising Anura about his health problems, who incidentally were friends of mine too, told me to advise Anura to keep off hard liquor. Being a teetotaler myself, I could talk to him on the subject and he listened carefully. While traveling abroad with me, he drank only ginger ale while I enjoyed my ginger beer.

I had the pleasure of traveling to India and the US with him when we were invited by the Legislatures of both countries. I specially recall the meetings we had with Sonia Gandhi in India and Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN in New York. Anura was a fine companion, kind and always concerned about my wellbeing. He had inherited his father’s oratorical skills and was a fine speaker, in the House and elsewhere. His premature death was a great loss to our country.

(The writer is a former Secretary General of Parliament)

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