Her Ladyship Justice Chandra Ekanayake, the acting Chief Justice, the Hon Attorney General, Prof Savitri Goonesekera, Hon Minister of Justice, Hon Solicitor General, distinguished members of the Head table, Honourable Justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, other Honourable Judges, Presidents Counsel, Life Members of the Bar Association, Honoris Causa, colleagues and my dear friends. 

I stand before you today as the 41st President of the Bar Association. Yes, I stand with a sense of pride. Pride not at what may be considered my personal achievement. 

I am proud and humbled that throughout the length and breadth of this land, my colleagues, seniors, peers and juniors at the Bar have placed their trust in me to discharge this onerous office.  I say colleagues as I refer not only to the members of the unofficial Bar, who form the vast majority of the membership of the Bar Association, but also to the learned members of the judiciary, the office of the Attorney General and his officers, the Official Bar, and those in the corporate, non Government and academic world who count significantly as members of the Bar. Under the Constitution of the Bar Association upon enrollment as an Attorney at Law all of them automatically become members of this great Association, and remain so, until death or disenrollment.  The Bar Association and its voice comprises and should necessarily include the voice of all these stakeholders. 

Our Bar has had its ups and downs. In the recent past it has faced impeachments and challenges. My predecessor in office Mr. Upul Jayasuriya has faced brickbats and bouquets, in that sequence, and has had a bumpy ride with many obstacles in steering the Bar in the course of the Rule of Law and Democracy. Through it all the Bar, with a great majority backing, stood up. Differences of Race, Religion or political affiliations played no part and paled in insignificance, when the call of the Bar for democracy and the Rule of Law was heeded. I see in my election, and the trust reposed in me, the need to further consolidate and empower the Bar in its role towards its members and society, an inward and outward looking approach, which I am called upon to undertake. 

In our country we churn out about half a thousand lawyers each year. They join the profession after a basic legal education. The opportunities for practice or employment, in the State sector or in the Private Sector or pursing other avenues of employment appear limited in the context of such vast numbers. It is therefore important for us to equip these professionals with cutting edge skills to contribute meaningfully to society. 

The quality and content of our legal education require substantial refurbishment to meet the challenges of a complex world that is developing rapidly. In expanding the horizon of opportunity for our colleagues I am mindful that quality of education determines the quality of our professionals. Therefore I need not emphasise the need for us to pursue, and work in partnership with the universities to strengthen our legal education. 

The financial security of our young professionals of the first few years of practice has to be ensured to provide a platform, if not a springboard, to launch out. It is also necessary to be mindful that if we are to address the issues or combat allegations of unprofessional practices there is a need to address this in a sustained manner. The whole hearted cooperation of seniors of the Bar is also vital to assist and guide our junior colleagues in their formative years in the profession not only to learn the ropes but to set them in the right direction. This could be through mentoring, if they cannot be accommodated for a full time chamber practice with a senior, due to the numbers passing out being large and so few seniors around or able to accommodate them. 

The very presence of sufficient seniors to mingle and positively interact with juniors at gathering such as seminars and workshops and even picnics is critical. The need for continuous legal education and soft skills development in areas such as negotiating skills and management skills required for developing well rounded confident professionals need no further elaboration. 

The unity, independence and integrity of the Bar are essential not only for its survival, and for its meaningful contribution to society, but to also ensure that the critical institutions set up for and in the service of society are able to function without fear or favour. Constitutional and legislative provisions, though urgent and required to consolidate the independence and impartiality of institutions may have no meaning in the ultimate unless we have a strong Bar and an ever vigilant and vibrant democracy, a democracy watchful against abuses and perversions of the law. All too often we have seen the best of laws being ignored or abused at the whims of those in authority. 

We as the members of the legal profession, as professionals exclusively endowed with the practice of the law, have a duty to exercise our privileges in a manner which is manifestly beneficial to society and to uplift the civil, economic and political rights of all our citizens. As members of the Bar, holding this pre-eminent position in society, I have no doubt that all of us endeavor to do this when discharging our respective professional roles. 

However, my interactions with the members of the profession, both young and old, covering all parts of our country, make it abundantly clear that there is a need to re affirm this commitment and ensure that the work we do has meaning and value for society and creates that multiplier effect to contribute to the development of our land and further empower the pre eminent position the legal profession enjoyed over the years. For this we have to support each other and work together.   

 

Our political history would have more than convinced us that democracy is too precious to be entirely left in the hands of politicians of whatever calling or colour. Yes, sadly we have seen that power corrupts and so does absolute power. 

“It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error.  It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”

Robert H. Jackson, US Judge in American Communications Association vs. Doud, May 1950 

We have seen many instances of persons we believed were messiah's or saviours of our nation meteorically ascend to power and over time descend to the basest. They fail the test of Statesmanship or integrity. 

“All men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln 

Our contribution to society has to be positive and continuing. We believe the voice of the Bar has to be loud and clear. It has to be responsible and truly professional. It cannot be partisan or politically biased.  It cannot be motivated by the agenda or self seeking interests of its individual members. We are mindful that any benefits we or the judges get for ourselves personally by way of promotions, positions and perks, do not come from the private funds of the politicians but from the funds of the people or the State. We have to therefore earn them by merit and give back to the people or State in full measure for what we get.  

In this journey we need the support of not only the body of civil society but the support of responsible professional and civil society organization representatives. After all aren't we all on a common journey to continuously press for a decent and civilised existence for our country and generations to come? Is it not the responsibility of all of us to ensure it? Democracy requires the participation of all of us. It is not merely a matter for periodic elections held at irregular intervals or at the behest of astrologers when we are energized and then slumber till the next election is on! 

As members of the Bar, the institution foremost to us is the Judiciary. Though sometimes considered a remnant of a colonial past and seemingly anachronistic or out of place in an Eastern culture because of the attire and accompanying formalities, yet, within this institution is the future of democracy which has to hold the scale of justice evenly between citizen and citizen and more so between citizen and the State. An independent and strong Bar is therefore crucial for ensuring this and for protection of the judiciary. The Bar has been firm against the might of the State when it came to appointments, promotions, perquisites or impeachments related to the judiciary. We see Judges as one with us forming one legal fraternity. Our desire is and should be to work closely and harmoniously with the Judiciary while respecting each other’s complementary roles in the service of the legal system. The protection of the judiciary is one of our foremost duties since the judiciary cannot be expected to have a public voice. 

The Bar has constantly raised its concerns for ensuring transparent and rational mechanisms towards the protection of all judges, irrespective of rank. 

The minor judiciary straddles various parts of our island. It is they that handle the flesh and blood of the law on a day to day basis enduring much hardship and inconvenience. They need to be fortified in the belief that their tenure will not be subjected to uncertainty.  Reasonable mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure transparency and fairness in procedures related to the Judiciary rather than leave it to chance. 

We at the Bar are also concerned at the overlooking of judges for promotions by considerations other than seniority and merit. With no intention of derogating from the ability of any person, we also believe that the Superior courts will be richer through a healthy balance or mix of persons from career judges, the Official and Unofficial Bar with perhaps a slight tilt in numbers towards the career judges. 

Whilst the good intention of the present government is not doubted, it is of concern when sitting Judges especially of the Supreme Court are appointed to tribunals or commissions inquiring into matters domestic or internal to our country. It is no doubt refreshing to realize that the Executive looks to the Judiciary for an impartial competent inquiry.  Yet, considering the work load of especially the Supreme Court which is bursting at its seams today and the need to keep judges free from allegations of political or other biases in the interests not only of the judiciary but the individual judges, it is best that a mechanism which does not involve sitting judges, especially of the higher courts, be put into place. The law that provides for Commissions of Inquiry being over thirty seven years old, needs revisiting in today’s context. 

Judges are and should be perceived as Priests discharging a sacred duty.  If they are perceived as less independent or as compromising values on which their priestly duties rest by seeking favours and undue benefits from the Executive we too have to take the blame and lets guard against such eventuality as in the words of a President of the American Bar Association, 

“If respect for the Courts and for the judicial process is gone or steadily weakened no law can save us as a society.”

William Gosett, President, Bar Association     

We believe in constant dialogue and engaging with the authorities to nudge and remind them that the delivering on the essentials of democracy is a sacred duty reposed in them as holders of Public Office in trust for the people. Under our Constitution we have no doubt that Sovereignty is with the people and not the Rulers. 

On a personal note I pay special tribute to a great judge, Justice Mark Fernando, who was denied his rightful place in the Supreme Court. This perhaps led to some of the most sordid events in the history of our land and the judiciary. They may be best forgotten though perhaps best remembered as a grim reminder of what should not be. I also remember Deshamanya R.K.W Goonesekara, whose wife my revered teacher is our guest of honour tonight, and Mr. Elanga Wikramanayake who strove for justice in the midst of all odds irrespective of colour, creed or political affiliations of his client or opponent. It is with fondness that I remember Desmond Fernando, P. C who taught me that you could take principled stands against your own friend’s wrong action without personal animosity while continuing to be friends.   

I also wish to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Upul Jayasuriya, former President of the Bar Association for the steadfast leadership he gave the association during his tenure.  I thank the former Deputy President Mr. Prasanna Jayawardena, PC and other members of the Executive Committee, whose silent work contributed in no small measure to our wins over the last two years.   I also wish to thank all of them for the support and guidance extended to me to induct me into the role from the time I was declared the President elect. 

I also wish to thank Mr. Kanag Isvaran, P. C., Mr. Ikram Mohamed P.C, Mr. Romesh de Silva, P. C.,  Mr. Manohara de Silva, P. C., Mr. Rohan Sahabandu, P.C., Mr. Maithri Wickremasinghe, P. C. for proposing my candidature to the Bar Association and for Mr. Gamini Jayasinghe, Senior Counsel, Mr. Ali Sabry, P. C., Mrs. Nalini Manatunge, Mr. Kapila Manamperi, Mrs. Surangani Kodituwakku, Mr. Anura Meddegoda for seconding my candidature and many others including Ms. Maureen Seneviratne, P.C. who supported my candidiature. I greatly value the confidence they placed in me and am hopeful and confident that they will continue to support me and the Bar Association in the future. 

I will be remiss in not mentioning the Junior Bar, the Colombo Law Society members of the outstation Bars who supported me. The names are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to state that they were and they will be the bedrock of my strength and courage I have today to discharge my duties as the President of the Bar Association. 

I wish to thank my family and my juniors for their unfailing support at all times. 

 

Thank you for your presence and may we all cherish and protect the Rule of Law and Democracy.