The torments suffered by citizens who find themselves drawn into litigation in Sri Lanka do not require embroidered description. Most readers would have had occasion to experience the tribulations of dealing not only with the opposing party but with the many infirmities of the legal system itself. Consequently, it was greatly encouraging to read recently in the press that Their Lordships the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal have, once again, drawn the attention of the government regarding a few of the most urgent steps it needs to take if the citizens of this country are not to be driven by desperation to adopt extra-legal methods to solve their disputes with each other. Their Lordships comments were made at the recent Annual Convocation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL).
It has been reiterated that the backlog of cases in the Court of Appeal is now over 12,000, and growing steadily. The decentralisation of the Court of Appeal, so that there is one, say, in each of the provinces would go a long way to ensure that verdicts are given in months rather than years, not to mention the enormous reduction in unnecessary travel, ancillary expenses and distress for litigants. It would also encourage capable lawyers to remain in the provinces with a prospect of earning a good income without having to migrate to Colombo. We, therefore, wholeheartedly support Their Lordships endeavours in this direction and call upon the government not to prevaricate on this issue but to take speedy action to ease the sufferings of the thousands of citizens who daily undergo the tortures of dealing with an under-funded judiciary.
If the President would give serious consideration to the recommendations made repeatedly by many political experts and CIMOGG to reduce the number of Ministers to around 20, there would be enough money saved to set up the critically-necessary provincial Courts of Appeal. It is not that we are unaware that promotion to ministerial rank is one of the legal incentives (Abribes probably being too strong a term) given to many MPs to remain loyal to the government. What we urge is that there should be a conscious and sustained effort at least from now onwards to reduce the number of ministries as suitable opportunities arise, eg. when Ministers break the law, fail to observe financial regulations or default on the programmes set for them by the Cabinet. In the interim, one of the most practical steps that the government could take would be to strengthen the Auditor-General’s Department and make it autonomous so that we do not have to be faced with multi-billion rupee VAT scams, which, if they had been prevented, could easily have funded the additional Courts of Appeal and the proposed increase in the number of judges, as well as the cost of expanding the Auditor-General’s Department.
The then President-Elect of the BASL (now President) had on the same stage expressed great concern regarding the need for lawyers to maintain high ethical standards and not to create divisions within the BASL on political lines. CIMOGG heartily echoes these sentiments but should also like to see that these proposed standards lead its members to adopt a more human touch in their dealings with clients. In this connection, it is pertinent to mention that one of the questions that CIMOGG is asked frequently is whether there is any moral justification for lawyers to collect more than a nominal fee for attendance only where cases are postponed for various reasons, through no fault of either of the parties to the litigation. Of course, it is appreciated that where one party deliberately uses delaying tactics, it is not unjust for that party to be compelled to pay the opposing party’s costs but this alone need not preclude a rigorous review of current practices. The excuse given, that lawyers cannot sue for their fees, is for all practical purposes a convenient fiction because they generally make sure of collecting their fees before each consultation and court sitting. It is only if the client is well known as a good paymaster that lawyers will wait for their fees to be paid later.
Finally, with the greatest respect to our Lordships, we should like to put it to them that precept is best underpinned by example and that, therefore, the judiciary should take the lead by adopting the BANGALORE PRINCIPLES OF JUDICIAL CONDUCT and thereby inspire the lawyers to follow suit with their own Code of Conduct for which we are sure there must be numerous readymade prototypes available in countries which are more socially advanced.