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Opinion

Judiciary – ‘a sleeping giant’?

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I stumbled upon an article published by Verite Research. It stated that the number of days it takes to enforce a contract through the court system in Sri Lanka was 1,318. That is in excess of three and a half years. The information was drawn from a World Bank study on the ease of doing business, with enforcing contracts being one of the metrics. A contract is one of the basic means of legal recourse. The article also showed that in Vietnam and Malaysia, time taken to enforce a contract was around 400 days. In Singapore it was 150 days.

You might safely assume that successive administrations since 2013 would have moved mountains to improve this most basic indicator. Especially considering that Sri Lanka was touting itself as a frontier economy in the region, in 2013, enforcing a contract ought to have been made much easier and quicker in the interim six -seven years.

Well, in 2013 it was 1,318 days and today, in 2020, the latest report from the World Bank shows that the number of days taken to enforce a contract is still 1,318 days! I dare say this may have something to do with inadequate reporting or a lack of data. I urge anyone to use the tools at hand to research this further.

Whatever these indices say about Sri Lanka, the lived experiences of many Sri Lankans are as good a measure as any. All Sri Lankans today, in 2020, know very well to avoid the legal system at any and all costs; as the expense, the time taken and the virtual harassment that the inefficiencies of the court system inflicts on ordinary citizens, are simply not worth the trouble. Even an employee that wants to seek redress for being unfairly treated by his or her employer will have to wait many years to obtain compensation, despite stringent labour laws. This shows that having strict laws in place is futile unless they can be implemented in a speedy manner.

During my career, I recall many instances where actions of competent officers were undermined by their organizations. I am aware of a specific instance at a foreign bank where there was a case of deferment of revenue by a senior officer, without formally advising the customer. This exposed a systemic failure of the bank’s internal systems, yet officers higher up the ladder were scapegoated. This allowed the bank to not only cover-up the deficiencies of their systems but to also conceal the incompetence of its expatriate CEO.

The expatriate CEO in question was conveniently transferred out of Sri Lanka, while the local officers are still in court, five years later. The expatriate CEO was allowed to take early retirement with full benefits, while the local officers even had their contributions to their own gratuity payments frozen by this foreign bank. The loss of earnings besides the effects on their reputations and the stress of the process is one thing. Yet to have an international organization use all of its financial and legal might to delay, block and mislead legal proceedings is shocking. What is downright disgusting is that the system is built for this type of delaying tactic, where justice comes after many years of court dates and many millions in legal fees.

Whether you are involved in a car accident or you have had a personal item stolen or you have been verbally abused, the most common course of action taken by you would be to shrug your shoulders and move on. Going to the police and resorting to legal action would basically be the utmost last resort, no matter what crime has been committed.

For reference, in the late 1980s, I met with a car accident while working in the Middle East; another motorist carelessly scratched my vehicle. There was a police officer nearby, who immediately intervened and took down my details. Within one week, I received a cheque from my insurance company to pay for the repairs. No going to the police station to record a statement, no prolonged wait for an insurance agent.

In Sri Lanka, if you are a business owner and you need legal recourse, you face a multi-year wait. Can we call this a fair judicial SYSTEM? Can something that is so clearly stunted, so obviously unfit for purpose, be described as a system? It you do so you must affix the word BROKEN, before the word, ‘system’. Is it broken beyond repair? Within this broken system, can there be justice? Without justice, can we be a truly democratic society?

There also seems to be a process of never-ending interviews and investigations. Witnesses and others related to an investigation are interviewed by the police for six or eight hours sometimes. I shudder at the thought of pages upon pages of unnecessary notes and records taken at these interviews. Another example of a lack of efficiency or intentional time wasting. The time taken to collect evidence after an offence has been committed simply allows those accused more time to escape punishment.

Sri Lanka has had a Ministry of Justice since 1947. Ministers of Justice throughout the years have included luminaries of public service such as Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Nissanka Wijeyeratne in the past. More recently, W. J. M. Lokubandara, Rauf Hakeem and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe have held this cabinet position. Yet, we see a shocking lack of attention paid to this issue which affects all Sri Lankans, of all walks of life.

By the Justice Ministry’s own latest available statistics, as at end 2016, about 725,000 cases were pending in courts, with the largest number, 535,000 cases, pending in Magistrates’ Courts. Consider what this number actually represents; in human terms. How many people must feel helpless at the lack of action? A wait that could last several years would be bad enough for the owner of an enterprise or an entrepreneur or even a simple shopkeeper.

Yet consider those waiting for justice for serious crimes; murder, rape, theft or even harassment. How desperate must someone feel to have been robbed, or had a loved one assaulted, but then wait years upon years for redress, with no guarantee and no definite time-line. How many people will watch the best years of their lives wither away in courtrooms around the country? The almost machine like process of taking a day off your job to attend a court date, only to be given another court date three-six months later, is simply dehumanizing. Let us call it what it is; an inhumane system, completely unfit for purpose.

If there are over 700,000 cases pending in our system, do we even dare consider how many cases never make it into the system at all? Such an estimate, if attempted would certainly be multiple times more and would perhaps be the most depressing statistic of all. Usually, what is most insidious is what the numbers do not show as well as the situations for which there are no numbers.

Sri Lankans seem to have internalized this notion of helplessness, perhaps this is ingrained in our psyche by design. We simply do not want to risk our precious time, energy, money, well-being and job security to take a case to the courts. The countless, faceless millions of Sri Lankans over the years that have had to simply grin and bear whatever misfortune befalls them, deserve better.

Worse still, this system allows those with even a modicum of power, to abuse it, as they know they will not be tried in a court of law, anytime within the next five years. The room this leaves for corrupt practices in every sphere of life is a blot on our society. The vacuum of law and order that this creates will necessitate desperate measures by Sri Lankans. We read many stories of Sri Lankans taking matters into their own hands, most times out of sheer desperation.

To gauge how bad the situation is, you need only revisit the infamous “Yahapalanaya” government, and its efforts (genuine or not) to litigate cases involving political corruption and abuse of power. President Maithripala Sirisena at the time decided to form special courts to hear such cases. This too seems to have been an abject failure, similar to the five year stint of that administration.

The people should also note that if certain cases need to be expedited, for political reasons, it can sometimes happen. Political expediency is the number one priority, not the needs of the common man. Yet another indication that the political class and elites of the country play by a different set of rules.

RW

Colombo

 



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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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Opinion

‘CEB restructure must be apolitical says CEBEU’ – a reply

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The above captioned news item appearing in your Sunday issue quotes CEBEU mentions that Cabinet approval has been granted to commence restructuring of Ceylon Electricity Board [C EB] and a committee has been appointed to submit its recommendations within a month; a very important and urgent action indeed seeing and learning the mismanagement and conflicting views and action taken to serve two masters viz, the Ministry for Power and Energy and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] and also political interferences as correctly stated by CEB engineers –”The engineers stressed that political non-interferences is of paramount importance”. The interference of the Minister to award a tender for the construction pf 350 Mw LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya to a Chinese construction Company as against the recommendation of the Tender Board, causing a delay of over four years, and the cabinet approval for a wind farm in the north by an Indian company without consulting CEB are a couple worthy of mentioning. It should be emphatically stated, CEB has knowledgeable expert electrical engineers and I believe there are none outside, other than those retired CEB engineers who have set up lucrative consultancy firms, internationally recognized. During my time serving this sector for nearly two decades, with directives by the Ministry, in electrical engineering, administrative and financial matters, the CEB ran to the satisfaction of consumers and also invested elsewhere which made the Treasury to compel CEB to invest on Treasury Bills. The interferences in the administration and matters were directly settled by CEB and also directives of the Ministry have now to obtain the approval of PUCSL.

I remember that the PUCSL called for tenders to remove electric poles, a minor job done by area engineers. There was an instance where the PUCSL sought legal action against CEB for not consulting the PUCSL on a certain matter. Recently, the PUCSL has reduced the tariff worked out by expert proposed by the CEB. What does this mean, the CEB will have to cut down or cancel certain items which it had, to accommodate PUCSL reduction. For efficient running of the CEB, the committee should recommend an end to PUCSL interference with CEB. Do not forget consumers of electricity, commuters etc., could directly place their grievances to the authorities or through organizations, associations concerned and Trade Union, to get redress. The interference I mentioned is not my not my view alone. This was a request made by former Ministry for Power and Energy, Dallas Alahapperuma to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it was approved but overruled by the then Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. For reasons perhaps ut ab ordine – chaos from order.

It is hoped the Committee appointed will look into what is stated above and make recommendations accordingly.

G. A. D.S irimal
BORALESGAMUWA
Former Assistant Secretary, SLAS, Ministry P&E.

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