Disgusting twists and turns in the BASL election campaign

By A MASINGHE

 

Seniors call the professionals to uphold the democratic process

 

In almost 10 days members of the noble profession will go into polling booths to elect a leader to the black-coated fraternity in the country: the 26th president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL).

 

Introductions or backgrounds to the twocandidates are not necessary since it is common knowledge now. It has also become abundantly clear that unlike in any other election of the BASL in the past 25 years this year’s campaign of both the candidates had taken a sharp deviation from the norm.

 

The noble profession would as anyone’s guess consist of noblemen and women. There can be many instances cited to back this statement. There have been instances when one candidate has stepped back and given the other the go-ahead. Acted courteously towards each other and most importantly understood the true need for contesting this election as honest men and women of the profession.  

 

Unfortunately, this year’s election has taken a turn that would more or less define the future of the BASL.

 

As Sri Lankans, various campaign tactics that are not considered as just and gentlemanlike have been adopted in our political system for years. And for years the people of this country are more than tired of the rhetoric, mudslinging, and intimidation that had been carried out through various means.

 

In the past, BASL election campaigns have maintained a high standard or at the very least seemed to maintain decorum, mutual respect, and integrity in the run-up to the election. Sadly, it has by now become something opposed to what it had been.

 

During the run-up to the election, most of the right-thinking professionals have denounced slogans or campaign material based on racism, mudslinging, and even demeaning statements.

 

A senior lawyer, a President’s counsel who was also a former President of the BASL making his observations on the current conduct of the contenders, commented that it is appalling when members of the profession resort to cheap mudslinging, misinformation and disinformation in general.  

 

 

“It is of greater concern when a person who is running for the Presidency of the Bar Association resorts to this kind of practices as it undermines the profession in the eyes of the public and sets a bad example to juniors who come into the profession.  When President’s Counsel are contenders for Presidency, a higher, if not the highest standard of responsible conduct is expected not only to uphold the conduct expected from such honorary position but to be a beacon in upholding norms, standards and traditions of the Bar. Whilst appointments to President’s counsel in recent times has moved away from the hallowed traditions, the public and the members of the Bar must be spared of shockingly sad spectacles of mudslinging bordering on hooliganism that we have seen in the current run-up to the Bar Association Presidency.  Lack of ethical or professional standards was evident from events organized to canvass support and use of the social media to level unfounded and unwarranted charges and mudslinging, sometimes using religion and race as a weapon”, he said.

 

 

In response to the mudslinging campaign where one candidate’s previous professional engagements were questioned, a senior counsel, Viran Corea has posted on Twitter, some pertinent questions for any independent undecided voter to think about before walking into that polling booth on the 24th of this month.

 

“The election for the BASL President (21/22), has seemed to campaign to a type never resorted to before. This makes it wise for lawyers who want to protect, preserve and build a ‘noble profession’ to ask the following questions, to better exercise their choice:

1.  Who launched the sponsored SMS defaming one candidate to all lawyer and a paid mudslinging social media campaign?

2.  Why did they do it (who hired them), how much did it cost and who bore that cost?

3.  Why didn’t the other candidate come forward swiftly and unequivocally denounce such low and unbecoming blows?

4.  Apart from the above, who organized a gathering for selected journalists, handing them goodies and a prepared booklet with material for mudslinging in the lead up to Election Day? Who spoke to journalists at that function?

5.  If such tactics are seen or allowed to succeed, would decent high-quality candidates be willing to step forward to run for BASL office in future?

6.  What does this speak to honourable lawyers, as to the choice before them on BASL Election Day?

 

 

 

The gradual decline in the legal/justice system is largely attributed to the appointment of a former Chief Justice during whose term the system saw unprecedented manipulations. From then to present we have seen times where the justice system has come under unprecedented strain. One comforting factor is that at many such times where the whole system was in jeopardy, we have seen the members coming forwards brushing aside their differences but to fight for a noble cause that affects all members and also the country as a whole.

 

The most recent and glaring example is the arbitrary expulsion of the former Chief Justice ShiraniBandaranayake. All members of the bar and the bench fought tooth and nail leaving aside differences and who may have not necessarily agreed, but only to ensure that the independence of the system is not strained.

Former President of the BASL, Upul Jayasuriya PC, in his address at the ceremonial sitting to bid farewell after CJ Bandaranayake was reinstated said,

 

“We marched towards the independence of the Judiciary. It is a triumph of the values that we stood for. If we lose our struggle for judicial independence and professional integrity, if we cannot defend our right to practice our profession with dignity whilst ensuring the safety of the Judiciary based on the highest principles on which the legal profession is founded, then every one of us including those of whom we represent in our pursuit for justice will be at risk. These values are precious and priceless”.

 

It is abundantly clear how important the role of the President of the BASL is. It is not merely for the independence of the profession, but it has a nexus to the governing of the country, where rule of law is the bedrock. Therefore, the person who must be appointed to this position in this noble profession should be independent, not merely seen to be independent but truly independent. It is a must that he shall work towards an independent and a strong legal system free from any interference or encumbrances.

 

Earlier this week the Madras High Court barred elected candidates from contesting for the post-second time continuously of Bar Associations and Advocates’ Associations in Tamil Nadu in V Madhesh v. The Secretary, Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry case. In this case, judges remarked that we should caution ourselves.

 

If members of this profession do not tread cautiously keeping well in mind the independence of the profession although we are far above the current peril in leaps and bounds, that is faced by Indian lawyers, it will not be too long when our judges will also have to make decisions with following sentiments,

 

“Elections to Advocates Associations or Bar Council are no different from the general election to the legislature in which invariably, to woo the electorate, Communal, religious, political cards etc., are played; Money power is exhibited; Liquor is generously offered. Due to unavoidable above corrupt practices, the election process in our country has become a mockery… Sadly, our bar leaders are not properly elected by following the democratic process, without any malpractices. Present members of the so-called ‘Noble Profession’ are readily selling their votes for ‘Money, Liquor, Foreign Tours, etc.’. This is the practice in almost every election for Association or Bar Council,” the Court said in V Madhesh v. The Secretary, Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry

 

In this decisive moment may the following words of wisdom by the senior President Counsel’s guide your conscience to vote in the upcoming election of the BASL.

 

“It is time that responsible and professionally uncompromised seniors in the profession reassert the fundamentals of the Bar, its traditions and values founded on basic decency, which is founded on what anyone is generally taught as a child, by one’s parents, teachers, and every great religion, and finally dictated by the professional standards expected of a lawyer, and more so from Presidents’ Counsel. Failure to do so will lead to a greater catastrophe – the large number of those who enter the profession now and in the future and junior counsel will be confused and will be led to believe that the profession is a mere money-making venture, where anyone can be bought by handouts, promises of status, financial gain or political affiliation, debasing the profession to a dubious mercantile pursuit

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