For the first time in its history, the National Law Conference (NLC) organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) opened its doors to virtual participation this year, as the annual event was converted to a “hybrid” virtual and physical conference in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, a limited number of resource persons [...]


“New normal” to a “new dynamic”: National Law Conference looks to the future in largely virtual event


The Head Table at the inauguration of the National Law Conference 2021 with Chief Guest, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, Attorney General Dappula De Livera, President of the Court of Appeal Arjuna Obeysekere, Chairman of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka Romesh De Silva, BASL President Kalinga Indatissa and other dignitaries

For the first time in its history, the National Law Conference (NLC) organised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) opened its doors to virtual participation this year, as the annual event was converted to a “hybrid” virtual and physical conference in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accordingly, a limited number of resource persons and participants were physically present at the conference venue at the Hotel Galadari, while several resource persons and many participants also attended virtually. The two-day event came to a close last evening.

NLC 2021 was held under the theme “Futurism,” which NLC 2021 Chairman Hiran De Alwis described as an attempt to envisage a future from the present “new normal” to a “new dynamic.”

The pandemic highlighted that there were many things that should have been corrected long ago, said BASL Secretary Rajeev Amarasuriya. One positive however, was that it has provided an opportunity to leapfrog over what has not been done, he added.

He noted that discussions had taken place even before the pandemic about making the NLC more broad based. “I’m sure that this will be the first of many conferences held on a virtual platform,” the BASL Secretary remarked.

This year’s programme included parallel sessions held from morning to evening. The topics discussed at Session 1 on Friday were Workplace best practices and Health / Safety / Quarantine / Insurance / Labour Laws. A parallel session 2 took up Effective Enforcement of Business Contracts, Ease of Biz / Arbitration Law Enforcement / Company Law.

Speaking on the enforcement of quarantine laws during the pandemic, DIG (Legal, Disciplinary & Conduct Range) and Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana noted that the Director General of Health Services declared the whole of Sri Lanka as a “diseased locality” via a gazette notification in March last year. This was initially done for seven days, but was then extended till further notice. Accordingly, the entire country is still a diseased locality.

He argued that the Director General of Health Services had lawfully delegated some powers to the Inspector General of Police (IGP) under Section 37 of the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance.

One of the many sessions at the conference in progress

While some of the measures adopted by police to control the pandemic may be amenable to judicial review, they are nevertheless essential, he insisted.

DIG Rohana, though, said that the impact of the pandemic has shown that authorities needed to review laws that were outdated as well as look into changing infrastructure and general attitudes.

On the subject of workplace safety, several panelists called for amending outdated labour laws and legislation such as Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance and the Factories Ordinance.

Under the current Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance, if a worker died in a workplace accident, the most his or her family will obtain as compensation was just Rs 550, 000, observed Deepthi Lokuarachchi, Attorney-at-Law and Group CEO of Lanka Hospitals Corporation PLC. This amounts to virtually nothing if the individual has several young children, he pointed out.

The pandemic showed that the Factories Ordinance too needed to be revisited, said Dr Inoka Suraweera, Consultant Community Physician, Directorate of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Health Ministry. She pointed out that under the current law, a worker who gets infected with COVID-19 will find it difficult to obtain any compensation.

“Viruses can mutate, so vaccines will not give us lifelong immunity. We need to practice simple health measures even though we are vaccinating. Simple measures will take us a long way,” Dr Suraweera stressed.

The question of what exactly amounts to “defamation” in the digital age was explored under the topic “Defamation in Digital Space and CyberSpace.”

Panelists discussed issues such as the sort of content that could be characterized as defamation on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Research Fellow Ashwini Natesan spoke on the issues surrounding “Twibel” or libelous statements made over Twitter. She noted that generally in such cases, the person who sent out an offending tweet will be held liable, though not those who retweet it. When it comes to content shared on WhatsApp, it depends on how the amount of people the content reaches. For example, if it’s only a few persons, it would be difficult to prove defamation. However, if the content is shared in a group having 100 or more people, then it may be possible to prove defamation, she added.

Academic Prof. Rohan Edirisinghe meanwhile, stressed on the need to protect freedom of speech and cautioned against moving to curb speech that one found shocking and offensive. “There’s no point in saying you are for freedom of speech if you are only willing to accept speech you can tolerate,” he added.

He also pointed out that what might be considered defamatory several decades ago may not be considered defamatory now. For example, calling someone a homosexual today may not be defamatory, whereas it might have been 20 years ago.

Joining the discussion, BASL President Kalinga Indatissa, PC, opined that certain statements made by young lawyers on social media today are completely unbecoming of their profession. He said they will have to look at enforcing the rules that are there for lawyers who engage in such conduct. “Anything that is published in that way on social media that is not factually correct and affecting the character of an individual might be defamatory,” Mr Indatissa concluded.

From empathy for child abuse victims to focus on fundamental rightsFinal day panel discussionsOne of the major challenges of child abuse cases is to conduct the process with the minimum amount of “retraumatization” of victims, said Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Darshini Hettiarachchi. She was speaking at yesterday’s panel discussion on “Child Abuse / Mental Abuse and Harassment.”

She cited one case she had come across where six schoolgirls in one Grade 11 class had been sexually abused by a schoolteacher. Police officers in uniforms had come to their houses and transported the girls in police vehicles to hospitals. The girls had later reported that travelling in the police vehicles and enduring subsequent comments by fellow villagers had been more traumatic than the abuse. Three of the victims had to be prescribed medicine for depression.

As part of efforts to avoid such situations, Dr Hettiarachchi recommended measures such as treating victims with empathy, creating a child friendly environment for abuse victims in a legal setting, using video recordings to minimise the child being repeatedly questioned on the same thing and minimisation of the duration of court hearings.

“We spend hours training and sensitizing judges on children. We need empathy to understand that children aren’t mini adults,” said retired Supreme Court Justice and Consultant of the Sri Lanka Judges Institute, Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane.

She also called for changes in sentencing policies. “When the offender is a child, we need to move from punitive and deterrence to rehabilitation and reintegration.”

Courts have to be people friendly and victim friendly, she added. In the current context, “if you went home and found your daughter was raped, would you go to court?” she asked, stating most people would say no. “We must be united in protecting the vulnerable. We need to use our position of power to empower. We must become protectors,” she stressed.

Justice Tilakawardane also spoke of workplace sexual harassment. A massive programme was needed to create sensitivity and awareness regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, she remarked. We have laws, but the problem is in the implementations,” she added.

Joining the panel discussion on “Sports Law / Contracts / Betting / TV Rights / Sponsorships” virtually, former Sri Lanka Captain and MCC President Kumar Sangakkara stated that it was very difficult to detect “spot fixers” in the game. The Anti Corruption Unit of the International Cricket Council (ICC) however, had come a long way now and, aside from having nearly every single illegal bookmaker on file, the unit also strictly monitors every action of cricketers while on tour. The unit has been building trust with the players to a point where they are encouraged to report any suspicious approach.

He also cautioned fans and spectators not to view every unusual action that happens on the cricket field with suspicion. “Cricket is a sport where some of the strangest things have happened. Not every single act is due to corruption,” he emphasised.

Fundamental rights is the soul of the Constitution, insisted Geofrey Alagaratnam, PC, speaking at the discussion on “Fundamental Freedoms – Religion / Language Rights.”

“Don’t look at fundamental rights as something forced on us by the Americans. Just look at our religions. We have been talking about fundamental rights for centuries and millennia,” he pointed out.

Mr Alagaratnam also opined that many in the country have misunderstood the clause in the Constitution giving the foremost place to Buddhism. “It means you foster Buddhism, but it doesn’t mean you give foremost place to Buddhists. It doesn’t mean that you can put statues all over the country. We have interpreted it wrongly in a way that makes it seem one is superior.”

Democracy is not majoritarianism, he remarked, speaking on the issue of the National Anthem being sung in Tamil. He pointed out that Tamil is an official language in the country, which makes it on par with Sinhala. “Just because the National Anthem is written in Sinhala in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean you can only sing it in Sinhala,” he stressed.


Law Commission Chairman leads the way in call to step into uncharted watersOpening day speechesLawyers and judges need to come out of their comfort zone and to think of the future with courage said Romesh De Silva P.C. Chairman of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka.Delivering the keynote address at the inauguration of the National Law Conference (NLC) 2021 on Friday, Mr De Silva said courage was needed “to cruise through uncharted waters.”

He urged the bar to be vigilant regarding attempts to take certain parts of the country out of the jurisdiction of local courts, “such as Port City, allied projects and terminals.”

Noting that this year’s NLC was being held under the theme “Futurism,” the Law Commission Chairman stated that the future of the country’s legal system can be divided into short term, medium term and long term. The short term being February 2022, medium term February 2024 and long term being February 2026.

Focusing specifically on the short term, he highlighted the issues of laws delays, laws that deal with the internet, ethical conduct of lawyers and digitalisation.

He proposed that the bar cooperate with the bench to reduce the present backlog of the Supreme Court by 1000 cases by February 2022. This could be done by cooperating with each bench of the Supreme Court to conclude five cases each day, he added.

Regarding laws that deal with the internet, Mr De Silva noted that the Law Commission has proposed laws that criminalise invasion of privacy. For example laws have been proposed to criminalise taking sexually explicit photographs of a person and uploading them onto social media without the person’s consent.

Similarly photographs that violate privacy that are taken at private functions not intended to be made public also cannot be uploaded to social media under newly proposed laws, he further said. These laws are essential when thinking of the short term goals, he emphasised.

Addressing the gathering, NLC 2021 Chairman Hiran De Alwis stated he trusted that the conference, its deliberations and participation, would help to guide new developments in the law, and to make it a reality in its practical application, “We envisage diverse viewpoints to generate a healthy discourse, to be able to fashion the future and guide the law accordingly,” he said.

There are certain areas of the law where the law needs reform, said Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President Kalinga Indatissa. He expressed satisfaction at the steps taken by Justice Minister Ali Sabry with the assistance of the BASL to identify necessary law reforms that should be effected immediately.

Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya was the Chief Guest at the ceremony, while other Justices of the Supreme Court, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, Attorney General Dappula De Livera and President of the Court of Appeal Arjuna Obeysekere were also in attendance.

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