At a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court last week– hardly a rare occasion — Attorney-General Dappula de Livera made an address to welcome three new members to the bench of the highest court. While in normal circumstances such a ceremony would have attracted little attention except from other members of the judiciary, the official [...]


Some angels fear to tread


At a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court last week– hardly a rare occasion — Attorney-General Dappula de Livera made an address to welcome three new members to the bench of the highest court.

While in normal circumstances such a ceremony would have attracted little attention except from other members of the judiciary, the official and unofficial bars, academics, family and invitees, last week’s sitting seems to have caught the interest of some others because of another judicial occurrence around the time.

Not that the two occurrences had anything to do with one another. One was a formal sitting to welcome judges elevated to the Supreme Court bench. The other was the verdict against a member of parliament and a representative of the people charged with contempt of court.

If increased attention was focused on the recent event it was a post facto reaction for two reasons. One was the conviction of MP and popular screen actor Ranjan Ramanayake to four years rigorous imprisonment on a charge of contempt of court.

The other was the subject of the address by the Attorney General that dwelt with the importance of the judiciary in our societal/ political structure and the integrity of those who adjudicate — such as judges — to ensure that justice is done.

If justice is to mean what it is said to mean and function in that manner, then justice must be fair, equitable and impartial as the AG pointed out. Moreover, it must so function at every level of the judicial structure. Otherwise fairness, equality and impartiality become mere sounds articulated by ‘hollow men’ as TS Eliot would have called them making noises as Trumpian as they come.

In his Address the AG said:

“The credibility of a judicial system in a country is dependent on the Judges who man it. Judges must be persons of impeccable integrity and unimpeachable independence. A Judge must discharge his judicial functions with high integrity, impartially and intellectual honesty. Speaking of intellectual honesty; the law would be like a ball of clay in the hands of an erudite Judge. Therefore, Judges should be ruthlessly honest, independent, and impartial and possess a judicial conscience to ensure that the ball of clay is molded according to law.”

The AG went on to make some other salient points: “For over 2000 years of the island’s long history, the Courts of Law have occupied a unique place in the system of government. Public acceptance of the judiciary and public confidence in the judiciary is necessary for the rule of law to prevail in the country. Public confidence in the judiciary is dependent on the independence and integrity of the judiciary.

“The sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable and that sovereignty of the people is exercised by the judiciary in the public trust. The independence and the integrity of the judiciary ought to be preserved for justice and the rule of law to prevail in a society. A judiciary should not only be independent but appear to be independent in order to gain the confidence of the people.

“An independent judiciary is the corner stone the prevalence of the Rule of Law in a democratic society.”

These are words we have heard from our school days through university, diplomatic life at seminars and conferences and long years of journalism. It is not that they are not true. They have turned into clichés by overuse and little meaning, often by persons who have become used to repeat it parrot-like so often that it has lost all meaning and purpose.

That is why it has become necessary — nay vital- to pump moral and intellectual oxygen into the collapsing lungs of many judiciaries round the world. If there are those who still think that judiciaries do not need cleansing and are circling the wagons in the hope that their citadels of power and privilege must be saved, they should ask themselves what gave rise to the movement that eventually emerged as the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Integrity.

It was at Transparency International (TI) that Dr Nihal Jayawickrama and Jeremy Pope a New Zealander and British lawyer launched an initiative to tackle corruption in services in some countries around the world after complaints reached TI. A geographically extensive survey conducted then revealed that the Police were considered the most corrupt and the judiciary the second most corrupt.

This was the beginning of the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Integrity where a group of Chief Justices, senior judges sat down to discuss the issue. Among those attending was Australia’s Michael Kirby, a well-known academic and senior judge.

Initially Justice Kirby thought that judges were much maligned and did not need to be guided on integrity. But having been convinced by the number of instances cited and the stories related by judges themselves, Judge Kirby appeared to believe that corruption was widespread and the judiciary was not the holy of holies some believed it to be.

So with that first meeting in Vienna began the arduous trek towards what was to be called the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Integrity which is now a resolution of the United Nations urging member state in a separate document to draft their own code of conduct or update their existing ones to strengthen judicial integrity in their countries.

I wonder how many Sri Lankans including those vociferous politicians releasing rising levels of bombast are aware that Sri Lanka has no code of conduct for its judges and judicial officials, as admitted by a former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka at a meeting of the Bangalore Principles group in Vienna three or four years ago, much to the embarrassment of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans.

Time and space do not allow me to expatiate on the Bangalore Principles and the six values that go to make up the six principles. But I understand that the commentary on the six values that set out then in greater detail are now being updated by Dr Nihal Jayawickrama to bring them in line with several technological developments that currently do not fall within it such as Facebook and Internet.

My own interest in the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Conduct began for several reasons-as a journalist here in London, my interest in the law and my long time connection with Nihal Jayawickrama at university, Hong Kong where he was a university academic and drafted a Bill of Rights for Hong Kong at the request of the newspaper I worked for and later again in London.

Moreover, I came to know Judge Christie Weeramantry who was Vice President of the International Criminal Court and was an internationally renowned jurist and writer and it was an honour to interact with him.

While Dr Weeramantry was a prominent personality in the Judicial Integrity Group Dr Jayawickrama was Coordinator of the Judicial Integrity Group. So we had two internationally known jurists playing prominent roles in the BoPJI.

“Unlike many initiatives by governments in the past to impose standards on judiciaries as a cover to tamper with judicial independence, these principles are an honest attempt at self-regulation. The integrity of the judiciary was the corner stone of the democratic way of life,” Dr Weeramantry once said, underlying the importance of the work they have been engaged in.

How many have yet to recognise their value, let alone read about it. I wonder why!

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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