President Ranil Wickremesinghe came in for flak last week over his move to host judges of the Apex Courts to dinner at the Queen’s Cottage. This is now known as the President’s House in Nuwara Eliya. This was after the National Law Conference 2023, held at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya.

At the conference, the President spoke his mind and said that the majority of people, including many young people, have lost faith in elections and politics.

What the President said was somewhat correct. People have lost faith in elections due to the perversion of democratic processes and the lack of transparency in every form of governance. The prevalence of corruption and the feeling that the peoples’ voices are not being heard are cited as the main reasons for the dire state of affairs. In such a scenario, the President should act prudently to promote democracy’s values among the young and old in equal measure, with an emphasis on parliamentarians. This will help restore the country’s democratic system, which has disintegrated. One positive step forward could be the holding of local government elections, which has been put on the backburner, enabling people to elect the members of their choice at the village level.

Addressing the “National Law Conference 2023-2024,” the President said that even if all the political parties unite, none of them have a 50% vote base at the moment.

“That is why all parties should unite to resurrect the country from the economic crisis,” the President said. ‘The economic crisis has brought the country to the brink of collapse, and the government had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund for an extended fund facility to bail it out from a catastrophic situation’.

The President may be correct.  Many will beg to differ that the existing mélange of political parties are the answer to the economic crisis.  The President elaborated on his views on how people would react to a future election. The pertinent question is whether the President made these remarks to elicit responses from the appropriate forum. Both judges and lawyers are important segments of society, but it is only natural that they are far from responsive if they are expected to toe the line to uphold the hallowed democratic principle of the separation of powers. What they would prefer is to sit back and watch the emerging trends before taking their own decisions.

The irony is that the President made these remarks after his government failed to hold elections for local government institutions countrywide. Consequently, some individuals believe that the President’s remarks may influence the judges since he spoke his mind; however, others believe that newspaper opinion pieces could also influence the judges. They may help shape public opinion on some subjects. However, judges are always expected to analyse opinion makers’ comments judiciously, or they could be rejected as inappropriate. The writer recalls that when a top defence lawyer complained about a newspaper report on a murder case before the Colombo High Court, the presiding High Court judge told the lawyer concerned that the Court doesn’t go by what appears in newspapers but purely on the merits of the case. The complaint was largely because the newspaper report was not in favour of the submissions made by counsel. However there have been times where newspaper reports could be detrimental to some cases. This is when they fail to report material facts from the correct perspective of the case and mislead the general public about the judgement’s outcome. Though it would not influence judges per se, it would do a disservice to society at large.

Sri Lanka’s judges and judiciary, seen as the final frontier pushing back corruption, are held in high esteem. It is the ultimate place of redress for people’s grievances and is called the temple of ultimate justice. In that sense, some people think that politicians should be extremely careful not to embarrass judges since invitations from the highest in the land put them in an untold predicament. The judiciary is a branch of government separate from the executive and must be seen as independent and impartial. If politicians invite judges to events or put them in compromised positions, it could be seen as interference and undermine the public’s trust in the judiciary. This is because if judges are seen as being influenced by the executive and legislature, it can cause the public to question the fairness of their rulings and erode public confidence not only in the judiciary but also in the rule of law. This is especially true when the executive offers judges special privileges or favours, as this could be seen as an attempt to sway their decisions. The justice system plays the role of guardian of the rule of law, and that aspect should not be compromised at any cost as it would put the whole system, already in a perilous situation, in further jeopardy.

Coming back to the presidential remarks at the Law Conference, nobody could really complain that the remarks directly or indirectly influenced judges. If judges are swayed by such remarks, it is not the fault of the President since there was no direct or indirect reference to any particular case but it may have been to a hypothetical situation. It may be that he was trying to justify the government’s inability to hold local government elections. Hence, it would be difficult to draw inferences of any kind of direct meddling with the judiciary. . Former President J.R.Jayewardene set the precedent pf addressing legal professionals including judges.

Once, addressing a law conference, he said that during a war the laws fall silent. He probably said this at a time when the country was engulfed in terror campaigns unleashed by both the LTTE and JVP against the government at the butt end of his tenure. The government was equally culpable for launching state terror, especially against the JVP. 

The JVP and the Samagi Jana Bala Wegaya (SJB) also expressed their opposition to the President’s remarks at the National Law Conference. The JVP has demanded that the President hold elections immediately. Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa queried in Parliament the rationale behind the President’s address at a forum where the judges of the Apex courts were in attendance.

Against these unfolding events, there is yet another episode that may interest readers.

Soon after the 1989 presidential election the defeated candidate, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, filed an election petition in the Supreme Court under the Presidential Election Act. She challenged the election of President-elect R. Premadasa. The election petition came before a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice Parinda Ranasinghe. It is mandatory that a presidential election petition is heard by a five-judge bench, including the Chief Justice.

Petitioner Mrs. Bandaranaike was represented by an eminent lawyer, H.L. De Silva PC. President-elect Ranasinghe Premadasa was represented by another eminent personality, K.N. Choksy PC.

At that time, a bust of a late senior Bar member was to be unveiled at the Colombo Law Library. Both President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Chief Justice Parinda Ranasinghe were scheduled to attend the event.

Since the president was a respondent in the election petition filed before him, Chief Justice Parinda Ranasinghe had apparently declined the invitation to be present on the occasion. Some of the Chief Justice’s inhibitions might have prevented him from attending.

When the matter was brought to the attention of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, he took a very appropriate decision to avoid any kind of embarrassment to the Chief Justice and decided not to attend the event at the Law Library. The event then proceeded with Chief Justice Parinda Ranasinghe in attendance.

This is one occasion where the Chief Justice displayed the calibre of the judiciary to maintain public confidence in it.

Nevertheless, the matter in which President Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed the National Law Conference had no such bearing since he was not a direct respondent in any case before the Supreme Court. However, actions by the government’s executive arm have been the subject of cases before the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal. This may have given rise to concern and anxiety among lawyers and laymen. Against such a backdrop, it is imperative to maintain the dignity and independence of the judiciary to ensure public confidence.

In the immediate past, the Supreme Court has acted in a manner that safeguarded the interests of the general public in various instances where the government sought to bulldoze democratic opposition and opinion.

In reviewing the recent legislation that the government planned to introduce, it is clearly apparent that the Supreme Court has struck down many provisions. In the proposed Central Bank Bill, the Supreme Court found that 43 clauses were against the spirit of the Constitution. In the Rehabilitation Bill, the court found that ninety-two clauses were drafted in violation of the constitution and that the Anti-Terrorism Bill is unconstitutional in its entirety. The opposition, on the other hand, is up in arms against the proposed Broadcasting Bill. This would muffle the media at the whims and fancies of the government. It would also help to sweep corruption and other anti-social activities of the government under the carpet. The latest is that the Supreme Court has found that certain provisions in the Anti-Corruption Bill are also inconsistent with the Constitution. The Supreme Court has suggested several amendments to bring the legislation in line with the Constitution.

All in all, the government appears to be forging ahead with all its faults since there is no credible alternative to replace them. In addition, there is no stamina in the people for another Aragalaya since the government showed it was trying to address their issues in some way, but the most disturbing factor is that there is religious discord among communities that needs to be addressed immediately. Given Sri Lanka’s evolving nature, there are still those who try to cash in on such situations to make Sri Lanka a hotbed of cultural and religious unrest.

 If the government is not preparing for a political showdown by exacerbating religious tension, in view of a pending election, it can take meaningful measures to nip it in the bud.