14th March 1999
The slow rise of Sinhala in our courts
When S.W.R.D. Bandranaike intro-duced the Sinhala Only Act it had the least effect on the Roman-Dutch legal system of the country. Most lawyers at that time were from schools where English was predominant.
A pass in Latin at the Senior School Certificate Examination was a must. Only a few opted to join the Law College and enter a profession which they thought even at that time was overcrowded.
For a person from a Central College to compete with the Anglicized Sri Lankan Brown Sahibs from Colombo schools in the profession, was an impossibility. The legal profession thus became elite-based and the many in it were aloof to developments taking place in the country.
But it was Felix Dias Bandaranaike from Royal College, a school for the children of the elite, who introduced the Administration of Justice Law in 1973. Though many in the legal profession opposed this, for selfish reasons, other drastic changes he made in the legal procedure, were accepted by all.
The introduction of Sinhala and Tamil in courts by FDB was hailed by the ordinary people. But the pundits, both in the profession and outside it, claimed that Sinhala would never take roots in courts. They raised trivia, like how proceedings of cases be typed on non-existent Sinhala typewriters. They strenuously opposed any change, even if it was for the common good of the people.
The day that proceedings began in Sinhala at the Gampaha magistrate's courts, was a red-letter day for the progressives. The poor Sinhala litigants were astonished when lawyers addressed court in the language of the 'Kussi Amma' to be understood by them.
It was reported that some litigants shed tears of happiness. This transformation was resented by the Brown Sahibs who aped the West slavishly, but for the majority of the people it was a historic day.
For the first time they understood that when lawyers suddenly switched to English and a date was given the lawyer had asked for a postponement of the litigant's case on some flimsy excuse not known to him.
It was said that a senior counsel who was a master at word-play in the 'drawing room' language was offended when some lawyer asked him how he would manage in Sinhala in Courts. The senior lawyer snapped at the other and said that "I will manage in Sinhala the way you manage in English in Courts."
Such was the superiority of the elitist club who resented Sinhala being introduced in Court.
Now most newly passed out attorneys have been educated in the Sinhala or Tamil medium. Latin is no longer the language of the Romans. Though extinct many centuries ago, a pass in Latin at the 'O' Level examination was removed as a requirement for Law College entrance examinations only a few years ago.
But it also must be stated unequivocally, that this revolution had victors and vanquished. The English language became virtually the vanquished.
The standard of English has now deteriorated to such an extent that the Credit Pass at G.C.E. (Ordinary Level) is far below the standard of a person who has passed the Sixth standard in a village school where the medium of instruction was Sinhala, but English was an important and compulsory subject in the curriculum.
Today most courts at the first instance take down proceedings in Sinhala and the journal entries are maintained by judges in Sinhala or Tamil. The lawyers invariably speak in Sinhala which is best understood by the young judges of the same vintage.
But when it comes to the interpretation of the law it is English that prevails over the native tongue. Most Acts passed by parliament carry only a Sinhala translation of the act and the Bill is presented in English. Nonetheless, all Acts passed after the Administration of Justice Law carry a saving clause which states that if there is an inconsistency between the Sinhala and Tamil version, the Sinhala version will prevail. Nevertheless most lawyers interested in interpreting the law would rarely carry a Sinhala version of the Act. It is the English version that prevails.
To read the Sinhala Act and interpret it, it is essential that the lawyers must have a good command of Sinhala. Even in the original courts, the two bibles are the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes. It is difficult to lay your hands on the Sinhala originals of these Codes. They are either out of print or not printed at all.
I have referred in my earlier columns to how great jurists have interpreted the law in English to save their clients from disaster. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and H.V. Perera, Q.C. were masters in their chosen fields. It is said the whole question of the validity of quasi- judicial tribunals was developed by the late H.V. Perera, Q.C. Similarly Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was able to save R. P. Wijesiri, as he agreed with the interpretation of the statute by his junior D.S. Wijesinghe.
Continued next week
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