Chief Justice (CJ) Sarath N. Silva has, in a speech at the Kandy Court Complex, put his finger on something that is gnawing away at Sri Lanka`s social stability. However justified an aggrieved person may feel in taking the law into his hands, the CJ has said, he should desist from such a course of action as in so doing he only gets into deeper trouble. One couldn`t agree with him more! There is a high incidence of the people seeking to settle their scores on their own, in most cases through violence. If a pedestrian happens to be run over, people promptly organize themselves into a kangaroo court, hear the case in a few minutes and mete out dark justice the driver is assaulted, if not killed, and his vehicle set on fire.
It is not only ordinary people who act in that manner. Last week saw even the supposedly informed members of the fourth estate being jolted into meting out corporal punishment to an unruly minister at the Rupavahini Corporation. This is what a retired IGP says in a letter about the incident on the opposite page: `The public acclaim reflects the attitude that such outrageous conduct had to be brought to book at the hands of the public? Public had to take the matter into their own hands when the system was not equal to the task.` That is how every right thinking person in this country viewed that incident.
Sri Lankans are notorious for their predilection for quick fix solutions, when beset with some injustice?either perceived or real. Some of them even take their own lives or turn aggressive and violent at the drop of a hat. However, the problem of the people taking the law into their hands, we reckon, has more to do with the erosion of their confidence in the justice system over the years due to several reasons.
The dispensation of justice has become a very expensive process. The ordinary people cannot afford it. That`s why they say by the time a court case is over the loser becomes ash and the winner cinder. Most cases are like samsara as lawyers see to it that they drag on for years unless suspects go to jail or pay fines of their own volition. Nothing explains the sordid operations of lawyers better than this yarn: Once, a senior lawyer handed over a protracted case to his son who had just taken his oaths. A few days later, a triumphant son returned from court and proudly announced that he had won the case. Instead of hugging and kissing the son, the old man blew a gasket and thundered: `You fool, you finished that case with the help of which I bought my car, built this house and paid for your education!` Some judges are in league with lawyers. They ensure that a person who doesn`t retain a lawyer even for a trivial traffic offence pays a least twice the usual fine so as to impress on the public that unless they come with lawyers they have to pay more.
The inordinate delays in justice are mostly due to heavy workload stemming from lack of resources, poor management and procedural problems. Recently, we quoted Attorney General (AG) C. R. de Silva as having said that he was against the non-summary proceedings in the Magistrate Courts in respect of grave crimes such as murder and rape because they only resulted in delays. Some court cases are like soap operas. They go on for years and lack continuity and become confusing towards the end. Justice delayed, it is said, is justice denied. The frustration of the public is only natural.
The public are also getting disillusioned with the justice system because of the very low conviction rate which stands at four per cent at present. This appalling situation is attributable to laws delays, interference with evidence, lack of witness protection and corruption. AG has rightly pointed out that protracted delays in justice could either end in the acquittal of a criminal or even in the conviction of an innocent person. When cases drag on, witnesses get intimidated or even eliminated as suspects are enlarged on bail or they operate from behind prison walls as in the case of Kudu Nauffer to wipe out evidence against them. As for witness protection, very little gets done. In a country where a High Court Judge?Mr. Sarath Ambepitiya?has been assassinated by criminals, it is little surprise that some witnesses either keep away from courts or change their evidence to avoid trouble.
The very low conviction rate is due to widespread corruption in the police and allied departments. Although legal action is instituted against some lawbreakers, room is left for them to get away with their crimes. There have been disturbing reports of narcotics seized in raids turning out to be kurakkan powder in the end!
Parole for convicted criminals has also made a mockery of the justice system. As we pointed out in these columns on Dec. 24, the Panadura High Court Judge Mrs. Malini Gunaratne was in for a shock when she learnt that a suspect by the name of Gampolage Nimal Fonseka produced before her had previously been condemned to death. His sentence had been commuted to a life sentence and he had been released a few years later on the grounds of good conduct. Frowning on his parole, the judge said the release of such convicts was a travesty of justice it undermined the judiciary and encouraged serious crimes. The honest officers and men in the police must be thinking why on earth they should risk their life and limb to arrest criminals who, after conviction return home after a few years to cock a snook at them. On the other hand, would anyone in his or her proper senses want to give evidence against the suspects who virtually walk out of prisons?
Political interference has led to public disillusionment with the judicial system in no small measure. Notorious criminals operate freely selling drugs and killing people by virtue of their links to politicians. They reign supreme until they become embarrassing to their masters like Gonawala Sunil, Beddegana Sanjeewa , Wambotta et al. Last week`s incident at Rupavahini shed light on the unholy alliance between the underworld and politicians.
Political leaders also subjugate the judicial process to their interests. Under the UNF government, it may be recalled, several LTTE combatants arrested in a government-controlled area with weapons were enlarged on bail, though the offence they had committed was non-bailable, when the LTTE abducted a group of soldiers demanding their release much to the consternation of the judiciary.
All this has resulted in pent up public anger which finds vent from time to time in violent outbursts. Although they are spontaneous in most cases, if manipulated, they could lead to anarchy. That is the real danger of driving the people to take the law into their hands. Arresting this trend cannot be left entirely to one or two institutions. As the former IGP says in the conclusion of his letter, it is the roof that is crumbling. Reversing the trend is a gargantuan task which politicians, the judiciary, the police and the public service must put their shoulders to.
While urging the public to refrain from taking the law into their hands is in order, the conditions that have given rise to such a situation must be obviated. And fast!