Colvin, Felix Barefoot Lawyers


Last Friday I got a call from Nihal Jayawickrema, congratulating me on what I had written about the late Colvin R. de Silva. He told another story about the great man with whom he had had the privilege of working as a junior.

Before I narrate this story, I wish to recollect my memories of Jayawickrema. As a young lawyer, who joined the profession in the 1970s, we had been brainwashed into hating Jayawickrema and his Minister, Felix Dias Bandaranaike. We take exception to the fact that Felix was trying to introduce ‘Barefoot Lawyers’ like the Barefoot Doctors in China. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I consider Felix the greatest Minister of Justice this country has ever known. There were many mistakes made by him, but the overall picture was, in his attempt to speedily dispose of cases, by introducing the administration of justice law; as expected, most lawyers who lived on ‘dates’ started hating him.

Yet, I was quite concerned about the intention of Felix Dias to introduce barefoot lawyers to Sri Lanka. At that time, with the Cultural Revolution in China and our Government being Left leaning, we saw laudable accounts and news items about the manner in which the Barefoot Doctors did a yeoman service in rural and inaccessible remote regions of China. They worked tirelessly and according to the media, surpassed the regular doctors, who had got a degree from the Western Medical Schools.

So I decided to ask Nihal Jayawickrema about Felix Dias and his barefoot lawyers. This is what he had to say:

"After Harry Jayewardene beat T. Sri Ramanathan and became the President of the Bar Association, politics was introduced to the Bar, which was a political organization under stalwarts like S Nadesan QC. After HWJ’s advent, there was an ongoing conflict between the Minister and the President of the Bar Association. The Minister wanted to introduce a Legal Aid Scheme and the Legal Commission was established. Mr. Eliot Gunasekera became its Administrator. This was when the Bar Association was having its own Legal Scheme, which was in the Colombo Law Society Building that was taken over by the Minister. In protest, the members of the Bar Association refused to participate in the Legal Aid Institute established by the Government. As a minister in a socialist Government, Mr. Felix Dias was very keen to have a legal aid scheme which would benefit the litigants. The action of Felix Dias made the Bar Association to resolve, not to be pressurized by the Minister and without any political divide; they got united to defeat Felix Dias, especially when he tried to take over the Colombo Law Society Building".

Nihal Jayawickrema tells me that the government had given that land to Sir Cyril de Zoysa on a 30-year lease, and the 30 years had expired. Therefore, it automatically reverted to the Ministry of Justice. The BAR had nothing to do with the contents of the lease agreement. They wanted the government to extend the lease and the land to be given to the Bar Association. When the Minister declined, The BAR refused to cooperate with the Minister of Justice.

We assembled near the famous Baniyan Tree, near the Law Society Building, shouted hoarse, and cried for the resignation of both the Minister and the Secretary. Thereafter, when the lawyers continued to boycott the Legal Scheme, the Minister was determined to launch a Brigade of Barefoot Lawyers. Even under the Old Courts Ordinance, a cattle thief can appear with a ‘next friend’. Taking that as an example, Felix Dias said that a Barefoot Lawyer is not foreign to our legal system. Even today, at the Labour Tribunals, a ‘next friend’ could appear on behalf of an employee. This created a storm in the Legal Profession. All lawyers though politically divided, forgot their differences and collectively, with great unity, opposed both the Minister and his Secretary. Thereafter, the Minister introduced a scheme to regulate the lawyers’ fees, by which the fees earned by them would be regulated. Both these schemes were vehemently opposed by the BAR, and both the Minister and his Secretary could not find a single soul to support them. This led to the joining of all forces opposed to the Minister and the SLFP Government.

One day, when Mrs. Bandaranaike was having lunch, her Counsel Thyagalingam QC, stormed into the lunch room at Temple Trees, without an appointment. He threw his several briefs on the table and then turned and shouted at Mrs. Bandaranaike the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and told her, " I am withdrawing from these cases, so find another lawyer". She was so confused and astonished to observe her most trusted Counsel shriek at her. She then regained her composure and asked Felix Dias why the old man was so angry with her, as Mr. Thygalingam QC, was her Counsel from the time she became a politically important person. At that time he was appearing for three or four cases of defamation either filed by her, or filed against her. The old lady did not know what had come about for Mr. Thyagalingam to lose his composure and go into a rage. She asked Felix Dias whether he could rationalize what happened, and he disclosed that they were trying to introduce a scheme of payment, regulated by law for the lawyers to charge a regulated fee. Mrs. Bandaranaike vetoed the whole program of regulating the legal fees. So there was no gazette that came out. Mr. Felix Dias later lost the Dompe Election and Mrs. Bandaranaike’s SLFP was reduced to a few seats, and the President of the TULF Amirthalingam became the Leader of the Opposition like today. Later, Mr. Nihal Jayawickrema and Felix Dias both lost their civic rights. A Special Presidential Commission was appointed with powers to remove civic rights of those found guilty. One of the charges related to the introduction of ‘Barefoot Lawyers’ and Mr. Nihal Jayawickrema was acquitted of that charge.

He, thereafter, left the country and taught Law at the University of Hong Kong and later became the Professor of Law. He became a Professor of Human Rights at the Prestigious University of Canada and then became the Executive Director, Transparency International, and has written several books on Human Rights, International Jurisprudence and the Constitutional Law.

Mr. Jayawickrema is back in Sri Lanka. Having met him several times, and knowing of his scholarly contributions to the media, and especially his reply to Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe on Constitution Amendments, which clearly exhibits an era in which the lawyers were really learned and their wisdom helped the community. As he has retired, his wealth of experience could be used by any Government and specially a Government that is keen on re-drafting our Constitution.

The saga of Felix Dias and Nihal Jayawickrema shows an era where scholarship, learning and hard work made them superior to their peers. This also led to arrogance due to their superiority. They could not understand the trends in the country; and not to and never to, have conflicts with the Bar Association. By this action we lost the contribution of Felix Dias and Nihal Jayawickrema, both brilliant students of the Law. A similar fate fell upon JRJ when he tacitly permitted the murder of Wijeydasa Liyanaarachchi and the protest that resulted in a halt to his grandiose idea of contesting for the third time; and MR, when he insisted on impeaching Shiranee Bandaranayake. I remember the statement of one of the greatest Attorney-Generals Mr. K.C. Kamalasabeysan made, "When you become powerful like a tall bamboo tree, you must be able to bend and be humble and never be arrogant".

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