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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 95 - Legislation and multiple perspectives

( Created date: 22-Apr-2013 )

Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill. It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.
The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.
The Secretary General of Parliament understood why I thought this absurd, but I fear that most of my colleagues who were at the Justice Ministry Consultative Committee meeting at which I brought up the matter were bored, and seemed to think I was making a fuss about nothing. Consultative Committees are not supposed to be about this sort of thing, but should rather be concerned with whether the Courts in one’s electorate function well, which often translates into whether an adequate Courthouse has been built. Principles of legislation are not seen as interesting or important.
Fortunately the Minister, who is a lawyer, understood, as did another Minister who was present, and I am promised review of the practice. But I am saddened that most legislators do not bother about unnecessary complications. One of their prime responsibilities should be to see that laws they pass are readily understandable, since they are making laws for the people not for lawyers. Unfortunately they seem to think that looking critically at what is placed before them is not really their business, and it is simply voting for or against Bills that is their sole responsibility – and making party political points in debates rather than addressing the text of proposed legislation.
Given the electoral system under which they have been selected to Parliament, and through which they hope to return to another Parliament, this lack of attention to policies and principles is understandable. Though some make valiant efforts to focus on general subjects, through adjournment motions, given that hardly anyone remains in Parliament for adjournment debates unless a particularly contentious issue is being brought up by the opposition, there is little scope for consideration of wider issues. Instead, as a glance at the minutes of any Consultative Committee indicate, we have individuals drawing attention to problems in the areas they represent – in short, we have not consultation but grievance mechanisms.
In Parliament, it is Ministers who have to deal with grievances, so that decisions can in theory be made in accordance with departmental policies, not the predilections of individuals. But in the regions, where the balance of power is very different, Members of Parliament can exercise much greater influence. Public officials, and even representatives of law and order, can be called upon to resolve problems expeditiously, which often means conforming to predilections rather than acting in terms of general policy. 
This can become endemic, as in a case I was told about, of a very efficient OIC of a police station who was dealing firmly with drugs and other problems, but who was running foul of local politicians. Given the number of such politicians he has to satisfy, ranging from Parliamentarians through members of Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabha to all their hangers on, he will not be able to function efficiently. It is no wonder then that, while in the North the police in general are looked up to by the people and seen as a supportive force, in the South the picture can be very different.
It is all very well to say that such interference must be stopped, and police and public officials given a free hand. But in practical terms I can understand why even a generally honest and honourable Member of Parliament would have to succumb to pressure, to complain about an official who was rubbing too many elements in his support system the wrong way. The multiplication of irregular influences makes it almost impossible for either officials, or parliamentarians, not to succumb to a system built on patronage in multiple dimensions.
That is yet another reason for adjusting the electoral system, so that officials would each have to work with far fewer politicians. I recall the Secretary to the President telling me how life had been much easier in the old days when, as an Assistant Government Agent, he had to deal with only one Parliamentarian. In such a context, whatever the quality of the Parliamentarian and the official, they begin to understand each other, and sympathize with the priorities of the other, so that they can work out win-win situations rather than pursuing predilections singlemindedly. But now, in having to respond to multiple demands, officials are torn, and cannot explain the procedures they need to follow.
It has been said that legislation is too important to leave to politicians. That seems irrelevant now in Sri Lanka, where legislation is the business of bureaucrats and politicians approve or otherwise. But where bureaucratic systems too are collapsing, it would help if politicians could focus better on their responsibilities.     


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