by Mike Andree
Many a lawyer is worried about the manner in which the Bar Association of Sri Lanka is being run.
What worries them most is the Association’s lethargy when it comes to important issues such as the attacks on the Judiciary, like that on Judicial Services Commission Secretary Manjula Thilekeratne and the earlier one on the Mannar Magistrate and Court complex.
In fact some young lawyers are wondering whether the BASL is still alive, while some seniors say that the Association is lacking democratic norms, leaving them wondering where it is heading.
One of the most senior members of the BASL and in fact one of the oldest members of the Executive Committee, Ged Gooneratne, was recently asked by a group of young lawyers whether the Bar Association of Sri Lanka was dead. He had replied “not yet” and told them that it would not be allowed to die. He asked them to be patient till it was restored to its pristine glory.
It will be remembered that during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s rule, when a young lawyer, who had been filing Habeas Corpus applications in Court, was killed and the finger was pointed at the government, as no action was being taken to bring the murderers to book, the President of the BASL then was Desmond Fernando PC and the Association passed a resolution calling on the government to set up a Commission of Inquiry to probe the killing. Premadasa directed the Bar to the then Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne.
Ged Gooneratne led a delegation to that meeting and informed Ranjan Wijeratne about the matter. The Defence Minister, who was in an angry mood and in the presence of Service Chiefs told them that the governments policy was “catch and destroy”. Mr. R. K. W. Goonesekera, a lawyer without any suffixes behind his name, but who commanded absolute respect and was the much loved former principal of Law College a pointed out to him that lawyers involved in Haebus Corpus cases were being abducted and killed.
Wijeratne had asked them if they were implying that his Police and army were involved in the abduction and killings, to which Ged Gooneratne replied that if they were not then there should be no problem in the government appointing a Commission of Inquiry, to get to the bottom of the problem and that was what the BASL was requesting.
Those were the days when the Bar Association leadership was fearless and promptly stood up for all its members.
At a recent Bar Council, meeting at a time when the BASL leadership was delaying taking a decision on a contempt of court issue and six lawyers made it known that they would go ahead and petition Court seeking action against Minister Bathiudeen and when President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva made it clear that he would support their application, Ged Gooneratne went up and congratulated them on their bold stance. He also categorically told the BASL that he was political and his loyalty was only to the country of his birth and its people.
Lal Wijenayake of the Kandy Bar, who formed his own lawyers association, but is still an active member of the Bar Council, too is not happy with the manner in which the BASL is functioning. He said that he had suggested to the BASL that the attack on the Judiciary should be taken to the people as it is the people who will be affected if the Executive attempts to control it. But, the BASL has been very slow to act.
He said some lawyers were planning to hold a seminar in Kandy on November 3, to enlighten the people on what is happening and what role they could play in protecting the Judiciary. They also plan to take that message to other parts of the country to urge the people to stand up and protect the Judiciary.
Wijenayake believes that the BASL’s lethargic attitude is due to its hierarchy being under pressure from certain quarters.
Meanwhile, a member of the Executive Committee and Secretary of the Kegalle Bar, Priyantha Gamage, pointed out that a number of members representing the Association’s branches, who have to travel long distances to reach Colombo for Bar Council meetings, are disappointed with the BASL as there have been occasions when they come to present matters to the Council, the President would be absent and his deputy takes his place ending the meeting after a short time leaving the outstation representatives no time to bring up their problems or make suggestions.
He also claimed that democracy was lacking in the Association as the President on occasions orders members, making a presentation, to sit down midway and at times refuses to allow them to air their views.
Wijenayake is of the view that the Bar Association should take a firm stand on attacks on the Judiciary as every single Judge and magistrate had been a lawyer and member of the BASL before joining the judicial service.
He said it was the duty of the Bar Association to not only protect its members but also those of the judicial service as they were one in the service to the people of the country.