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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Laws’ delays – a major concern – Justice Ministry Secretary

“Although Sri Lanka’s judicial system is of a high standard compared to other countries in the region, law reforms need to be introduced to to meet present day challenges, the newly appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Justice Kamalini de Silva said.”

We are still observing archaic laws of our colonial masters. We need good infrastructure and good management skills to step into the modern legal systems”, she said. Speaking about the laws delays, remedies taken to reduce the backlog, the faith of the people in the country’s judiciary in resolving their legal issues, the Secretary, who is in the legal field for over 30-years, said Judges were competent to handle the issues but need the support of all those in the legal system, ranging from lawyers to peons to clear cases amounting to over 650,000 cases which are piled up in courts islandwide.

Kamalini, who spearheads a project to expedite cases related to children to avoid secondary victimisation of the child said steps had been taken to avoid administrative delays to reduce trauma to child victims when hearing cases.Explaining about capital punishment she said the decision to hang a person depends on the final nod from the President but she was not in favour of capital punishment as she felt that the state does not have the right to take away a citizen’s life.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: How do you describe the present judiciary system in the country?

A: We have a very efficient judicial system and I think considering other countries in the region most of our laws are adequate. I’m not saying that we don’t need to bring law reforms to update the laws to meet present day challenges. But basically we have a good legal framework. In addition we have quality judges, who are competent. We also uphold principles.

I am also happy that we have a woman Chief Justice, who is sensitive to issues that really concern the public.

What is really not in place is infrastructure and also poor management skills, which is something we have not concentrated on still. our registries and systems are what we have inherited from our colonial masters. while they have moved forward we have not. It is really difficult, particularly in our sector to change from the existing system to a modern system and it has to come gradually.

The other factor is that we don’t have resources and we are looking into it. As we are a developing country there are many priorities and the justice sector has not considered development per se.

We really make an impact on the development of the country because if a land is locked in litigation that land becomes unproductive. For example say a man who has been dismissed and is later cleared then he is given his job with back wages, the state or the person spends.

These things impact on projects which are stalled as a result of litigation and will take time. We have to recognise this fact and need to work towards a solution.

Q: What are the loopholes that hinder a sound judicial system in Sri Lanka and What are the changes that you think we need to implement to bring changes to this system?

A: I have just taken over. I have been in this field for almost 30 years. The laws delays is a perennial problem not only to Sri Lanka but almost all countries in the region, especially India, though it is developing fast still it has a huge backlog. Many studies have been done for the last so many years.

I don’t intend to turn the wheel. We will make use of the recommendations and reports of several committees on the laws delays on how to expedite cases.

My predecessor has made an amendment to the civil procedure code which will definitely help bring some of the statutory provisions in the earlier laws. We are also trying to introduce judicial mediation which will help to expedite cases.

There are many things that have been recommended to reduce the backlog. Fortunately, Minister Rauf Hakeem, who is also an experienced lawyer and well aware of the scenario, will support us to overcome the issue with the support of the Law Commission.

I am confident that I will get the support of everybody to implement some of the recommendations in the reports to take remedial action to resolve the laws delays.

Q: So you are confident that the recommendations of those committees will not gather dust anymore?

A: Yes. We will take it up and also try to expedite this issue which is the major problem in the judiciary. Over the years, we have been taking steps to address this issue but could not resolve it although we have enacted laws, conducted programs and provided necessary infrastructure.

We are going into modernisation, e-governance and also brought in computerisation to expedite the system but as I said before still there is a lot more to do.

Q: However due to certain incidents the majority have no faith in the judiciary and claim that there is no independent judicial system in Sri Lanka. What are your comments?

A: I refute these allegations. Most of our judges still maintain standards and people have confidence in the judiciary system. There have been studies where people have said that when they have a problem they will go to courts to resolve it. They will also try mediation and thus is the confidence that has been built over the years. I don’t think there is an erosion as such but there may be isolated incidents where they feel that they don’t have confidence in the system. But the majority believe in the system that is why so many people go to courts. If not they will not seek justice from the courts. They know that they will get justice. But as I said earlier the laws delays are a serious problem.

Q: The post of a Master is to be introduced to expedite delays. How do you think this will help the purpose?

A: The initial steps in a case are handled by judges. with the new law coming in the preliminary steps will be handled by a Master. Then the judge has more time to hear the case.

But if you go to courts now you can see till 11.30 am judges involved in handling preliminary work and they are tired by the time they hear the case. Under the new system they will have more time to hear the case. A judicial officer will be appointed to the post of Master.

Q: It is reported that there are over 750,000 cases piled up in courts. What are the main reasons for this and how does the Ministry plan to reduce this number?

A: The real number is over 650,000 and you need to remember this is an assessment but there is no count on all the cases. Some of them may be on the role but parties are disinterested. so the case remains. during the last few years the number of courts have been increased and also the number of high court judges.

There is the jurisdiction gazette where we have provided that litigants have to travel the least distance to the court and they will have new courthouses and this will help to clear the backlog.

But management is weak and to address this we have establish the Non-Judiciary Training Institute to train those who are in courts like registrars, fiscals and peons. They are very important people in the process.

Their inefficiency contributes to the laws delays and it is not only is the judge’s role important but also the support staff. If the support staff is not competent, naturally there will be a delay in the cases.

Q: Do you think judges are also responsible for the laws delays? and also it is claimed that most of our courts are still lacking facilities. What is your comment?

A: Judges have a role to play. I personally know this because we have been training judges. They are committed. The Laws delays are not the fault of judges or lawyers but they don’t have the necessary support. It is a contributory aspect and even litigants are reasonable.

Judges really work hard. We want the support staff to be competent as we still follow the old archaic system. It is a very good system, where you will not default. Everything is recorded but because the numbers are huge, we need to be more efficient.

For that we need to introduce computerisation, a case tracking system and new methodology which has been introduced in countries like Singapore.

They had many problems earlier but they really went all out and introduced the new system, which costs a massive amount of money but for us as we are still developing and it is difficult to invest so much to have a efficient system, which is doing everything online.

Q: Has the Ministry taken steps at least to kick start with modern technology?

A: We are in the process and taking steps to computerise the system and computers have been provided. That alone is not enough. we need to introduce systems to make it efficient otherwise replacing the existing systems and computerising it will not make a difference.

Q: Courts in the North and East are established after decades and how do you evaluate the progress?

A: New courthouses have been established where existing courthouses were damaged.

They are functioning well and we are focussing particularly on the North and East. A building program is under way to establish courts in those areas.

Q: Language is a barrier in the courts in the North and East as they lack Tamil speaking judicial staff. How does the ministry plan to overcome this issue?

A: Recruiting judicial officers is done by the Judicial Services Commission. It is their role and they have recruited some officers. They are taking steps to address the issue.

Q: Are there any plans to redesign the Judiciary system, to set up a court every 20km?

A: I don’t think there is a need to have a court every 20 km. We have a mediation Board in every AG’s division. As much as we bring justice close to the people, we must see that they get true justice so we need good judicial officers.

The Ministry has the jurisdiction gazette where we have looked at liaison and accessibility. We have looked at areas and we have provided court houses according to the needs of the country.

Q: How effective is the legal aid system, which was set up with the intention of facilitating the public?

A: Being a member of the Legal Aid Commission, I have personally seen the financial allocation being has tremendously increased as there is a need to assist people to resolve legal issues. The Present Chairman of the Legal Aid Commission, S.S. Wijeratne is very committed and has the vision to have Legal Aid Centres in every courthouse and we have been working towards that. Poverty does not mean that they should not have access to justice.

Legal Aid is a very important component and it is providing a service to the people. We have also been trying to enhance the cadre of legal officers to ensure that we don’t get second class justice. We try to see that lawyers who appear for litigants are competent.

Q: Computer-related crimes are a novel experience in Sri Lanka. What are the steps that the ministry has taken to address this issue?

A: Yes, the Computer-related Act already exists.

Q: Does the Ministry intend to change the system of the identification parade, where everyone has a face-to-face-meeting session?

A: The issue here is that sometimes people are afraid to identify the perpetrator of the crime. In some countries they do it behind a glass panel so the victims are protected.

We are thinking of such a system, especially in the cases of children as it provides a certain amount of protection. But one-way mirrors are costly.

Q: When a minor is raped and a complaint is lodged, she will be mentally undergoing the trauma because of the lengthy interrogation process. Can the Ministry look into a different system where there is less exposure for the victim to report her story?

A: We have a new project where the police, the Attorney General’s Department and Health Ministry are involved. I am spearheading it from the ministry.

We are trying to see that there is no secondary victimisation of the child and also to expedite the case.

Training programs for police officers are underway and the pilot project has been a success.

We have got the commitment of senior officials of the AG’s Department and the Solicitor General, who is the brainchild behind this scheme are keen that this project gets off the ground.

We are avoiding administrative delays to reduce trauma for the victim. The Police is giving excellent support. They have realised that they have a duty towards cases relating to children. We have a very good system in Sri Lanka where the rights of the suspect is also protected.

Q: With the crime wave, there are growing calls to implement capital punishment. Are you going to consider it?

A: Capital punishment is there in the existing law. We have not made a census. The final say is with the President. We have stringent punishment for those who commit grave crimes but personally I am not in favour of capital punishment as I feel the state does not have the right to take away a citizen’s life.


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