Sri Lanka state fails in the core business: administration of justice

In a previous column I stated that “no political or economic theorist would argue that the state should not be engaged in the provision of law and order . . .even extreme libertarians would see a role for the state in law and order.”

Sri Lanka presents a façade of a functioning legal system. Justices and judges get appointed; ceremonial sittings are held. Funds from World Bank loans are expended; buildings are constructed. Lawyers walk around briskly in court premises; many of them live well.

But it is rare to see a modern state fail so badly in this core function.

Evidence of failure

The President’s Counsel currently serving as Minister of Justice presented the evidence in a speech to the 47th Annual Convocation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka:

– the average time to enforce a contract in Sri Lanka is 1,318 days

– We have been ranked 161 out of 189 countries for the enforcement of contracts

– Our legal system is ranked 5th out of 8 in South Asia.

– Land, Partition and Testamentary cases on average take a generation to be settled.

– A criminal trial takes on average 9½ years to conclude in the High Court.

– A criminal matter on average will take a year to be fixed for appeal and 3-4 years for the said appeal to be completed.

But this is not all. From 1978, we have had justiciable fundamental rights. Fundamental is defined as “forming a necessary base or core; of central importance.” Therefore, one would expect fundamental rights cases to be given higher priority than the cases listed above.

But that is not the case. It took the Supreme Court until 2021 February to issue a decision on a fundamental rights case, Kurukulasuriya v Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SC FR Application No. 556/2008 & SC FR Application No. 557/2008), notwithstanding the unequivocal language of Article 126(5) of the Constitution: “The Supreme Court shall hear and finally dispose of any petition or reference under this Article within two months of the filing of such petition . . ..” Instead of two months, it took 145 months.

It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. Can it be said that justiciable fundamental rights exist in Sri Lanka?

Then let us look beyond law’s delays, at egregious injustice. At qualitatively bad decisions. We had a Chief Justice who publicly admitted that he absolved the current Prime Minister in the Helping Hambantota case on political grounds.

But this man’s unjust decisions were many, as I documented in an article published in the Financial Times of 27th November 2008. A bench headed by this Chief Justice decided on the 21st of July 2008 (CS/FR 209/2007) a matter that only came up for argument on the 27th of November 2008 before a different bench. That’s right. The case was to come up in November, but the decision was given four months earlier.

The bench headed by the Chief Justice ruled on the tax exemption in July: “The tax relief granted to JKH was not permissible under the existing Regulations and JKH got an amendment tailor made for its purpose and secured the tax exemption” (CS/FR 209/2007, pp. 60-61). Yet, the respondents in the case that came up for argument in November, including the then BOI Chairman Dhammika Perera, the BOI Chairman when the tax exemption was granted Arjuna Mahendran, and former Commissioner General of Inland Revenue A.A. Wijepala, all needed to determine the legality of the exemption, were not among those noticed in CS/FR 209/2007.

By initiating a separate case that was taken up for argument on 27th November and serving notice on the above individuals, the plaintiffs of CS/FR 209/2007 conceded that the tax matter was not part of that case. Yet, the Chief Justice issued a ruling, violating natural justice.

Was the former Chief Justice the only malefactor? What about the other justices on that bench? What about the counsel? I purposely published my indictment on 27th November 2008, the day the tax-exemption case was to be taken up.

It would have been difficult to miss because the editors had put a black border around it and stated that they were not responsible for the content.

Did anyone in the judiciary or the legal profession do anything about it? Was an inquiry initiated? No. Is it unreasonable to conclude that the rot in the legal system was not limited to one out-of-control Chief Justice?


Sri Lanka’s misguided state priorities and how to reset them

What the Sri Lanka state should prioritize: Arthashashtra

Core elements of a Sri Lanka state; public goods, national defence, justice: Arthashastra

Arthashasthra, for new thinking on Sri Lanka statecraft

Has the Attorney General’s Department, which wields enormous power, been insulated from the rot? Does it exercise prosecutorial discretion in a fair and reasonable manner? The large number of prosecutions dropped when governments change raise legitimate doubt.

Does the Legal Draftsman’s Department do its job in a professional manner? How could a Constitutional Amendment that sets a quorum of three for an Elections Commission with a membership of three have been cleared by that Department?

How could it have neglected to include the Consolidated Fund as a continuing source of revenue for the Fund of the Disaster Management Council in the Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005?

What is being done?

The current Minister of Justice is striking the right notes:

“It is vital that we look at a complete structural change from end to end and roll it out in a targeted and efficient way. We have to stop looking at the legal profession as one which exists solely for the sustenance of its members, but as one which plays a much more important role as a public centric body which is driving the justice system forward – one which is ready to innovate, to evolve and to take the right decisions at the right time to create a paradigm shift in the administration of justice.”

Even if done in a way that was not quite proper, the Minister has increased the number of judges in the superior courts. Funds have been allocated for court automation. It is hoped that the foundation laid by the comprehensive study completed in 2017 and the extensive consultations the ICT Agency conducted with the judges of the superior courts in 2019 will be built upon.

The above actions will, if adapted from a working system in another country, carefully piloted and scaled up, and supported with the necessary technical personnel, fix the dysfunctions in the “registry” part of the court system, which involves, or should involve, low discretion. If the system is transparent to lawyers, litigants and the public and is hardened to resist malicious attacks and manipulation, a key piece of the solution will be in place. But this will not, by itself, yield the desired outcomes.

The procedures and rules must be redesigned placing the needs of the litigants at the center, and not those of the lawyers and the judges. Even if it is a monopoly buttressed by archaic and arbitrary contempt-of-court rules, what the courts do is supply a service.

The litigants want a service, and they pay for it, either directly or through their taxes. They should be treated with respect and provided the services they seek at high levels of quality.

Decisions, even against those charged for criminal offenses should be of high quality in that they have been reached based on the relevant procedure, and are based on the best possible evidence. High quality also means not having to live in limbo for years, while lawyers and judges take their own cool time.

Unless procedures are reformed to put the litigants at the center, law’s delays will continue. Judges must work reasonable hours and they must impose discipline on lawyers by refusing frivolous requests for postponements. Section 63(2) of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission bill illustrates the dysfunctions of the current system:

“In order to foster international investor confidence in the ease of doing business and in the enforcement of contracts, in the national interest and in the interest of the advancement of the national economy, the inability of a particular attorney-at-law to appear before the Court on a particular date for personal reasons (including engagement to appear on that date in any other court or tribunal) shall not be a ground for postponement of commencement or continuation of the trial or be regarded as an exceptional ground warranting such postponements.”

For cases involving companies registered with the Port City Commission, the conventional rules that privilege the convenience of the lawyers are not to apply. But the rest of us will not only have to continue to put our lives on hold for the convenience of the lawyers and judges; we will also have to suffer the indignity of the fast-track litigants from the Port City cutting in front of us in the queue.

Simply reforming the rules will not suffice. The overall quality of legal education must be improved with a greater openness to innovation. The lowering of the protectionist barriers erected to safeguard the earning potential of members of the legal profession is a necessary condition. In recent debates around bilateral agreements dealing with trade in services, activist engineers told me that they need the kinds of protections the lawyers had erected for themselves against foreign competition.

Innovation requires the transfer of tacit knowledge possible only by day-to-day interactions. It is energized by competition. It is only when the legal profession becomes open to innovation that the judges who are drawn from it can become innovative and responsive.

All professions are protective of the pecuniary interests of their members. They fight back when those interests are threatened in any way. Lawyers are fearsome adversaries. Even the most astute and committed politicians approach legal reform with trepidation. They understand that the reform will take the form of trench warfare unlikely to yield results within the political cycle. They devise workarounds.

Politicians can at least try. System-level workarounds are unavailable to ordinary citizens and businesses. Their workarounds are petty and, in some cases, illegal. They limit transactions to trusted parties, knowing unenforceable contracts are meaningless. They seek the services of thugs to enforce contracts. They keep buildings that can be rented for revenue empty.


The proposed Colombo Port City Commission is a workaround.

Legal-system-related factors are a main reason Sri Lanka is ranked 99th out of 190 countries in the Ease of Doing Business Indicator. Even Nepal is ahead of us; Pakistan is about to catch up. Poor performance in resolving insolvency and enforcing contracts are major contributors to Sri Lanka’s low rank. On enforcing contracts, the country is ranked 164th.

It is unlikely that high-profile financial and service businesses will want to locate offices in Sri Lanka in these circumstances. Despairing that the legal system can be improved, the drafters of the Port City Commission Bill propose to make arbitration by the International Commercial Dispute Resolution Center that is to be established within the Port City mandatory for disputes arising within its area of authority. They also propose a fast-track, exemplified by section 63(2) quoted above, for engagement with the Sri Lankan courts if required.

Despite all the talk of how bad bypassing the Sri Lankan legal system is, this has been going on for a long time.

The disputes between several international banks and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation over hedging contracts entered in 2008 in the first Mahinda Rajapaksa government were not resolved by the Sri Lankan courts. Arbitrations on the contracts with Standard Chartered and Citibank commenced, respectively, before the English High Court and the London Court of International Arbitration.

Deutsche Bank’s arbitral proceedings against Sri Lanka for the actions of the CPC, Central Bank and the Supreme Court in relation to the failure to perform the hedging agreement were at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an organization established by the 1965 Convention for Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of other States (ICSID Convention).

The CPC lost the cases. They also bore the considerable costs of participation in expensive cities.

The legal agreements governing the Sri Lanka Telecom privatization by the first Kumaratunga government in 1998 did not give rise to a need for dispute resolution. But had such arisen, the arbitration would have been in Singapore under that country’s laws.

In this context, it is unlikely that commercial disputes where referral to the Dispute Settlement Center within the Port City is not mandatory will come to the Sri Lankan courts. They will go to Singapore, London, Geneva, or Washington DC. They will bypass the Sri Lankan legal system, understandably. At least the International Commercial Dispute Resolution Center will be on Sri Lankan soil and the lawyers need not be paid per diems.

Effects of workarounds

The petty workarounds of the citizen and the businessperson yield no good results. They simply overburden other parts of the system and let resources lie fallow.

We like to teach the Coase Theorem which describes the economic efficiency of an economic allocation or outcome in the presence of externalities. The theorem postulates that if trade in an externality is possible and there are sufficiently low transaction costs, bargaining will lead to a Pareto efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property.

But with a dysfunctional legal system, the condition of properly defined property rights does not exist. Coasean bargaining is limited to the classroom. We are compelled to fall back on the command-and-control capabilities of the state, overburdening it further.

The system-level workaround of the Port City Commission Law could be a holding action until we improve our legal system and associated processes of relevance to investors and service industries that are to be attracted to the Port City.

In the same way that the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) was to be a holding action until we improved the provision of planning, utility and related services throughout the country, there could be a plan to gradually bring the enclave within the general legal system which has been improved in the meanwhile. The doing business indicator measures good governance in the country as a whole (though for some components they focus on the capital), not in special enclaves.

It would be good if that were the case. But looking at the situation in the zones managed by the Board of Investment as the successor to the GCEC, we can see that the transition has not been completed even some 40 years later.

Even today, the services offered by the BOI in the zones are superior to those outside. We in Sri Lanka appear to be content with running superior systems and single windows for foreigners (and Sri Lankan who achieve such status) while letting the rest of the country suffer under second-rate systems and multiple windows.

The hope, always, is that the island of good governance will catalyze and drive reforms in the surrounding ocean of bad governance; that the land will take over the sea. We keep hoping.

Rohan Samarajiva is founding Chair of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank active across emerging Asia. In Artharshastra, he looks at how to arrest Sri Lanka’s declining state capacity and re-orient it to current and future needs.

Samarajiva was Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Post and Telecom in Bangladesh (2006-09). He has also been a policy advisor for The Sri Lnaka govermment and was Director General of Telecommunications in Sri Lanka (1998-99), when key reforms were made.

He is a member of the UN Global Pulse Advisory Group on the Governance of Data and Artificial Intelligence. Information lives of the poor: Fighting poverty with technology which he co-authored in 2013 had been published in Burmese, English, French and Spanish.

-Rohan Samarajeewa-


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