An account of life in Hulftsdorp

My destiny came to be linked with Hulftsdorp in the year 1953, when after obtaining a second Upper from the University of Ceylon at Thurstan Road, I joined the Law College to do the advocates Course. The legal profession was then divided into advocates and proctors, and to do the advocate’s course, one had to have a post secondary or tertiary qualification as one of the entry requirements. This system had its advantages in that a better quality of members were available to the legal profession. This is not to say that all those who joined the proctors’ course were of lower calibre; there were outstanding exceptions, who later qualified and sat for the advocates Final examination and ended up as Queen’s Counsel or President’s Counsel in their respective fields. One among these is my batch mate, Mr. Arthur Samarasekera, the leading land lawyer. Others before him included Mr. D. Q. M. Sirimanne, who became a Supreme Court Judge, Mr. U. A. (later Sir Ukkuwatte) Jayasundera, an outstanding criminal lawyer, and Mr. E. R. S. R. Coomaraswamy, the jurist.

As for life in the Law College in the early 1950’s, it was markedly different from life in the halls of academe. Not only was instruction more practically oriented, even the scheme of examination was designed to ensure that candidates were familiar with the entire syllabus. No choice of questions were allowed and candidates had to attempt all ten questions in whole or in part to obtain a pass mark. The rationale of this was obvious as lawyers are confronted with the many and varied problems of the litigating public. In contrast university undergraduates are given a choice of questions and by dexterously concentrating on parts of the syllabus that they fancy would turn up, a pass could be obtained. And with cramming of lecture notes being the accepted practice we have the sorry spectacle of half-backed graduates being churned out year after year.

To recall the names of those who lectured to us could add more life and verve to this narrative. Our lecturer in constitutional law was the Principal, Mr. Britto Mutunayagam, himself. A product of Oxford, he was an Oxonian through and through in dress, accent and demeanour. His introduction to constructional law and political science were gems of simplification - "If human beings are saints no law is necessary (social contract). If politicians are saints no constitution is necessary (separation of powers). And by way of satire on the politics of the time "The communalism of the majority passes for nationalism. The nationalism of the minority is labelled communalism". If you substitute racism for communalism you get today’s picture.

Mr. C. G. Weeramantry lectured to us on the law of contracts. His lectures were so comprehensive that one had the feeling that it was during this period that he was gathering material for his monumental work on the law of contracts. Mr. Neville Samarakoon, who was a busy District Court practitioner lectured on torts. He brought a matter of fact approach to his work and left no lasting impression either way. Not so Mr. Herbert Wanigatunga who lectured on Civil Procedure and Pleadings. He was decidedly school-masterly in word and deed, and one of the instances of his dry wit was the admonition not to equate the word "meet" in the expression "as to Court shall seem meet" occurring in the prayer to pleadings, with animal flesh.

While the staid and proper Mr. E. R. S. R. Coomaraswamy did Persons and Property, (his treatise on evidence came later), this list would not be complete without a reference to the colourful Mr. M. L. S. Jayasekara who did Roman Law. Mr. Jayasekara hailed from Balapitiya and was the son-in-law of the late M. T. de S. Amerasekera Q.C. and brother-in-law of Durand Amerasekera, a popular figure in Colombo circles. If one wanted to see Mr. Jayasekera in his element, one had only to (as some did) describe him as a descendant of the Cholas who settled down in Balapitiya.

Although the route from Law College to the temples of justice, that is the Courts of Law, was less than a stone’s throw away, for fledgling advocates to get a foot hold therein was a Herculean task. Apart from gaining experience in double quick time and developing an ability to think on one’s feet, there was a chasm to be bridged, created by the proctor-advocate dichotomy. A proctor in variably had to brief you. If you approach a client directly it would amount to touting. With the established proctors and the legal firms briefing their kith and kin and other favourites, the briefless advocates were whiling away their time chit-chatting in the lounge or drinking tea in the canteen sited in the wooden mezzanine floor over the lounge. Occasionally they heard the stentorian voice of R. L. Pereira, K.C., belting away at a witness in a murder trial held in the adjoining hall where the Colombo assizes were in progress.

Anything and everything was discussed in this place (popularly known as the Law Library), with no holds barred and no fear of consequences. It was the independence of the bar at work outside the Court room. In the early sixties two incidents that took place will bring nostalgic memories to those who were around during that time. The proprietor of the canteen, nicknamed "Banian Mudalali" by the membership (for sporting a rolled up banian as his attire) produced the best rice and curry lunch in Hulftsdorp. The one at Crown Hotel that stood opposite to the Law College was a very poor substitute. But the whimsical Chitra Wickremasekera (later High Court Judge) as secretary of the Law Library and in charge of the canteen, in a moment of pique sacked the mudalali. By this act he not only let down his colleagues but also dismantled an institution within an institution.

The other incident of note is a sad one even to recount. At least four members of the Colombo bar perished together in a nasty motor accident. After the day’s work had finished, Mr. Graham Pinto had offered lifts in his car to Messrs. H. D. Perera, Chandrasena and some others. On the way near the Colombo racecourse, he lost control of the vehicle and crashed. Later it was revealed that Graham Pinto was victim of a condition termed "Pefit-mal" that brought about sudden seizures. Yet another sad incident took place during the communal riots of July 1983. Mr. Ganesh, the then Secretary of the Law Library, was mercilessly done to death by a rampaging mob at Rajagiriya leaving no trace of him.

When advocates were twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for the briefs that never came, it certainly was a waste of valuable man-hours. But they should have known when they joined the profession what they were in for, and that there was room only at the top. Working on the susceptibilities of this group the communist inspired minister of Justice in the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike government, Mr. M. W. H. de Silva, Q.C., sponsored a movement to socialize the legal profession by introducing what was called the College system as it functioned in China. According to this, lawyers below ten years in practice were to constitute a College, and the available litigation to be farmed out among them. Mr. E. R. S. R. Coomaraswamy, who was a supporter of that government was spearheading the movement.

This was in 1958 and although a raw junior then, I organized a counter movement setting out the principles that should guide any reforms so as to ensure the continued independence or the legal profession. In this task I was greatly assisted by the burly, Ivon Perera, of Gower Street (a Riley enthusiast as well). Both sides engaged in a signature campaign, and we being in the majority, the College system died a natural death. At this time the organizational structure for advocates island-wide consisted of the General Council of Advocates which comprised the membership and the executive arm called the Bar Council of which the head was Mr. H. W. Jayawardene Q.C. The completed memorandum and annexures were handed over by me to Mr. Jayawardene. The copy which was with me till very recently was given to Mr. A. C. Gooneratne Q.C. when he became President of the Bar Association. Later he informed me that he had misplaced same. However bits and pieces still remain with me together with newspaper cutting of the time.

One of the distinguished signatories to our memorandum still alive is Mr. C.G. (Christie) Weeramantry. He not only signed the memorandum but also added the 13th item to it in his own handwriting (original still available). With the rabble going for Mr. Bandaranaike’s jugular at the time, there was a real danger that as in other fields the legal profession too would have got socialized but for our timely opposition. Present day lawyers would be quite unaware of this episode in their history. Proctors however were immune from the dangers of drastic reform and they continued unhindered under their umbrella organization, the Law Society, producing several luminaries in this field. Notably Mr. S. J. C. Kadirgamar (Laksman Kadirgamar’s father), crown Proctor Somasunderam, Mr. John Wilson and , of course, Sir Cyril de Zoysa and many others ably assisted by Mr. Austin Cooray, the Secretary. It was much later when Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike became Minister of Justice that the two branches of the profession got fused into Attorneys-at-Law, leading to the formation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka under the inspired leadership of Mr. H. W. Jayawardene Q.C.

My taking a stand on behalf of the legal profession subsequently led to my undoing so far as my progress in the profession was concerned. I was warned of this by Mr. N. E. Weerasooria Q.C. under whom I had apprenticed, but the idealism of youth prevented me from taking serious note of the warning. When I applied for a post of Crown Counsel, following usual procedure an interview was held presided over by Mr. Budd Jansze Q.C. the Attorney General. A family friend Mr. Rajah Wanasundera, who was already in the department told me that I had been placed first in order of selection. Curiously no appointment was forthcoming but instead another interview was held presided over by Mr. N. Tiruchelvam Q.C. the Solicitor General, who apparently had done much research into my back ground including my religious proclivities (all of which transpired in question from). My candidature was rejected. After being interviewed by the Attorney General, to be interviewed by the Solicitor General really let the cat out of the bag.

Following this setback I engaged myself in an assorted practice for about nine years (mainly criminal) and also functioned as junior to eminent counsel such as N. E. Weerasooriya, Q.C. Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera Q.C. Siri Perera Q.C. George Chitty Q.C. Mr. Herbert Wanigatunga and occasionally Mr. C. G. Weeramantry. Of the pleasant memories arising from these relationships, one was when I shared a room at the Queen’s Hotel with Mr. Weeramantry when we appeared in a case for the Kandy Omnibus Company. The other was staying for one whole week in the Ratnapura resthouse with Mr. N. E. Weerasooriya and Walter Wimalchandra to appear in a day-to-day hearing in a case involving the Sankhapala Vihare in Pallebedde. This was an action to vindicate title against encroachers to the vast Nindgama lands gifted by Royal Sannas to Rev. Koratota Dhammarama Thero of Matara for his literary achievements.

To be in Mr. Weerasooriya’s company even for a day was an experience by itself. He would come out with anecdotes and yarns, both informative and sometimes even slightly ribald, after his usual tot of whisky before sitting to dinner. Dwelling on the difficulties faced by advocates in getting a foothold at the Colombo bar, he said that despite assistance personally given by him it took Mr. H. V. Perera seven years to do so.

All those who associated with Mr. Weerasooriya knew that he lived a frugal life. He charged the lowest fees among all Queen’s Counsel; even in business he earned his money the hard way and wanted his rupee to go the longest possible distance. I was a direct witness of this frugality, when after ordering his toto of whisky he directed me to go downstairs and see whether the bar keeper poured the full measure (those days liquor was measured by the thimble). Talking of liquor another incident that comes to mind was when Mr. Siri Perera and I went to the NOH for lunch during the Galle Assizes, when Mr. Noel Gratien Q.C. was seen seated alone at the bar counter chatting to the bar keeper and imbibing his drink.

By the time I completed five years of active practice I was eligible to do assignments in the Court of Criminal Appeal which dealt with capital and treasonable offences. I did this quite successfully, one of the highlights being an acquittal I got against the state in a forged currency case conducted by Mr. V. T. Thamotharan Deputy Solicitor General and later Supreme Court Judge. The five years practice also entitled me to apply for a post in the government legal officers service. With a more enlightened regime in office I was successful this time and served for fifteen years, first in the Bribery Department and later in the Ministry of Justice to become its Senior Assistant Secretary. However the regime which was once enlightened had by the time it came back to power in 1977 under a new leadership was any thing but dharmista. Not only did it unjustly deprive the then Prime Minister, Justice Minister and Ministry Secretary of their civic rights, they also targeted neutral public servants like me.

After keeping me in the Ministry for some time till Mr. Parinda Ranasinghe who came in as Secretary picked up his work, they summarily shoved me out of the Ministry. I was denied promotion as secretary, even after Mr. Ranasinghe was elevated to the bench or even to the post of additional Secretary which I requested; and to cap it all denied an extension of service beyond 55 years. My peers are fully aware of this in justice. The matter subsequently figured in the newspapers as well. When Professor G. L. Peries who became a Minister in 1994 heard of my plight, he appointed me as a member of the Mediation Boards Commission for a term of three years. That was poor compensation.

These two set backs have made of me a unique person within the legal fraternity. I have been a victim of both of the main political forces that alternately came to power in this country. In this profession the cliche that man and moment must meet for things to happen can never be more true. If I had become a Crown Counsel in 1958, the vistas that were open to me were legion. When in 1972 as Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Justice I went for a 6 month training course to the British foreign and common wealth office, the person who acted for me was Mr. G. P. S. Silva (retired Chief Justice) who was then a Crown Counsel. If I had been given my rightful place as Secretary to the Ministry of Justice in 1977 or thereafter, then following the Precedents of Justice V. Sivasupremaniam and Dr. A. R. B. Amerasinghe, I could have laid a claim to the Supreme Court bench. All this was not to be and I have no regrets. In this profession more eminent and deserving persons than me have missed the bus. By strange quirks of fate Justice E. A. L. Wijewardene, Rajah Wanasundara and Mark Fernando missed the Chief Justice’s post, although seniority and competence entitled them.

After giving the best years of my life to the cause of administrating justice, this last revers though a disappointment did not undo me. The beauty of the legal profession is such that all else having failed, you still have a leg to stand on. I reverted to the unofficial bar with renewed vigour and practiced in the appellate Courts for the next 25 years doing both civil and criminal appellate work, and mostly for the not so well to do litigants (villagers and towns people from the outstations with a sprinkling from Colombo). With a success rate of nearly 90% in terms of winning cases this has given me huge satisfaction. Now I am just into the eightees having completed over 50 years at the bar-a-no mean achievement.

I can practice for a few more years, were I to follow the examples of Mr. A. C. Gooneratne and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who practiced well beyond their 80th year. So long as their two feet carry them lawyers do not easily hang up. But realizing that although I can render a competent service to clients, I cannot give of my best at this stage, I have decided to call it a day. I do so reminding the next generation of lawyers that the legal profession is a great profession and an honourable profession. It is a fraternity in a manner that no other profession is. Despite all its challenges and vicissitudes, to have been a part of its was both enjoyable and self-fulfilling. For not only can we earn our grub in it, but also be of service to our fellow beings.

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