R. S. Wanasundera: a gentleman of integrity and conscience par excellence


By Dilshan Boange

I can still recall as fragments, the first ‘conversation’ I had with Justice Raja Sirimevan Wanasundera PC. The crux of it was that a Coca Cola TV advertisement (from the USA aired back in the 1980s) showed a man who looked exactly like him. I was not even a schoolboy but a preschooler. The ‘conversation’ (largely made of my verbal output and his corresponding laughter) was in the dining room of my maternal grandparents’ home at 102 Fife Road. I can still recall my delight to have engaged him and got his attention, making that revelation to him, in the presence of my grandparents, and the benign, avuncular way he laughed in amusement at my forwardness. Me, a small child in excited animation acting out the very movement his ‘lookalike’ cocks back the head and gulps downs the beverage; he, a colossus, standing to a height of six feet with a greatly dignified patrician bearing.

Justice Wanasundera passed away in the early hours of Wednesday October 31 leaving a monumental legacy as a legal luminary which saw a career span over four decades both in the Official Bar and the Judiciary. Born on February 11, 1924 to Kandyan parentage from Ratnapura he had his schooling at Royal College, Colombo, went on to obtain a BA from the University College Colombo and pursued legal studies upon entering the Law College.

The book The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the first 185 years (1986) by former Supreme Court Judge Dr. A. R. B. Amerasinghe succinctly states the following about Justice Wanasundera’s career landmarks – "He was called to the Bar on April 27th 1947 after serving his apprenticeship in the chambers of N. E Weerasooria, K.C. He served as an Acting Crown Counsel from January 1952 and was appointed Crown Counsel on March 29th 1954. He rose to be Solicitor-General in 1972 and Acting Attorney-General in 1973 and he was appointed to the Bench of the Supreme Court on June 5th 1975. He has on several occasions acted as Chief Justice."

Justice Wanasundera during his illustrious career had notable exposure in respect of certain areas in international law. Justice Amarasinghe’s book cites some of these highlights about Justice Wanasundera such as representation of Sri Lanka at the Asian-African Legal Consultative Committee Sessions at Cairo (1958), Tokyo (1962) and Rangoon (1962). The book further states that Justice Wanasundera’s report as the chairman of the Law’s Delays Legal Culture Committee in 1985 attracted international attention and was appreciated as a first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region. And that his contribution through this report had been valued to the extent that he was extended a special invitation to address the conference of Chief Justices and Chief Court Administrators in Malaysia. Amongst his overseas exposure was also a course of post-graduate training in Stanford University USA during 1956-1957.

A lifelong friend of my maternal grandfather Edmund Eramudugolla from their days together at Law College, I first saw him as a regular visitor at 102 Fife Road, and also later on at our home in Rajagiriya after his retirement from the Judiciary, as he was also well known to my father.

Having had the privilege to hear his recollections of his career (and life in general) on innumerable occasions, I feel there is one story I should share for what it may be worth. He said that he was the first person to present the government of Sri Lanka with information about the emerging area of international law that dealt with maritime law, the law of the high seas. How it came about was that he had attended a conference on the subject in the USA, and I suspect it could have been during his time at Stanford, since it was the government of SWRD Bandaranaike to whom his ‘report’ on the conference was forwarded.

Laughingly he related of what was conveyed to him by one who had witnessed the PM’s reaction after perusing the paper. "Others’ flowers" he had said, Justice Wanasundera said laughing good humouredly relating what SWRD had uttered after reading the report. The PM had expressed that what the report contained was essentially words by the conference speakers! In all sincerity Justice Wanasudnera admitted that being a young man with little experience in doing a report on a subject completely new to him, he had merely presented a collection of quotations and extracts. He took delight in relating that witticism by SWRD.

Apart from his contributions to the development of case law through judicial decisions a significant contribution was made by him I believe in Chairing the Commission that inquired into NGOs in Sri Lanka, instituted during President Premadasa’s time, although the report was shelved.

He was a figure of immense integrity who sternly upheld the sanctity of judicial independence as not merely a matter of official duty but a requirement of his conscience. And from amongst the landmark judgments he delivered during his career, perhaps it will be his dissenting judgment on the 13th Amendment, which will through the passage of time, stand as his most indelible contribution to legal literature in our country.

A firm teetotaler and vegetarian he was a devout Buddhist and committed much of his life in retirement getting involved in meritorious acts, and rendered services being involved in laymen associations that helped further scholarship in the Dhamma, such as the Sumangala Sabhawa of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, of which he was the president.

Once or twice I asked him if he would not consider writing his memoirs as the wealth of experience and information he gained through his career would be invaluable to posterity. He replied that many would be struck with disbelief if they read what he could reveal about people and events that played a part in shaping our recent history.

Although he is not succeeded by any progeny of his own, his legacy will no doubt be a flame that will get fanned by the winds of time to a growing light. And it must also be noted that the legal fraternity of present has several of his relations – Palitha Wanasundera a cousin, Hon. Justice of the Supreme Court Mrs. Eva Wanasundera PC a cousin-in-law, the Hon. Solicitor General Yuwanjan Wijayatilake PC, V. Wijayatilake and Mohan Ratwatte his nephews, and also Piyumali Wanasundera a niece who was incidentally my batch mate in Colombo varsity.

He was a repository of knowledge and wisdom and was a gentleman par excellence in his manner and speech. May the life of Justice R. S Wanasundera and the principles he stood for inspire generations to come in the legal fraternity and beyond. I have not the slightest doubt that he closed his eyes to the world with a clear conscience. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.

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