One of the most positive aspects about the Budget presented this week is the allocation of Rs. 20 b for critical and long-overdue legal reforms and an upgrade to the entire judicial system.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry, among many others, has pointed out the desperate need to overhaul the judicial system to end backlogs and improve the procedures for anyone seeking justice. This is hardly news to Sri Lankans or even anyone who has been remotely associated with the judicial system but repeated attempts by successive Governments has not yielded significant results. It is hoped that this latest move will be the first in a sustained road map to overhaul and establish a restorative justice system in the country.
It moreover comes in the backdrop of prisoners getting killed as they attempt to escape to avoid catching COVID-19, showing how desperate the outdated, overwhelmed and archaic system has become.
Justice Ministry statistics reported in 2018 showed about 750,000 cases were pending in Courts as at September 2016 with the largest number of some 535,000 cases in Magistrates’ Courts. The Ministry said 3,486 were pending in the Supreme Court, 4,817 in the Court of Appeal, 5,890 in Civil Appellate High Courts, 16,811 in High Courts, 167,945 in District Courts, 535,644 in Magistrates’ Courts, 5,048 in Labour Tribunals, 175 in Board of Quazis and 5,376 in Quazi Courts.
These numbers have undoubtedly changed since the report was released, but there is little doubt that a staggering load still remains. The numbers do not adequately show the strain on people desperately waiting for justice. The numbers do not show the pain of the rape victim, the hopelessness of a murder victim’s mother, the businessman desperately waiting to repay debts and the child waiting for his inheritance. The system crushes all this humanity underfoot as it refuses to grind forward.
Governments for decades have tried to resolve this backlog by appointing more judges and in the latest effort attempting to get some courts to hear serious cases on consecutive days. The despondency of the judicial system has perhaps best been highlighted by the laggard progress of many corruption cases initiated by the past Government, which established new trial-at-bar courts with limited results.
A major overhaul is needed to solve the problem of a weak judicial system and provide redress to millions of people. Already over 200,000 cases, usually civil in nature, are referred to mediation boards each year. The Courts or the Police send the cases to mediation boards where over 40% of them are resolved, which one imagines must be a higher percentage than what the formal Courts deliver.
In developed countries there exists one judge for every 50 people, on average. But the numbers are far less in Sri Lanka. While mediation boards are staffed by volunteers, the formal Court judges have to be trained and usually give up a better paying career to become judges. The Courts also judge far more complex and serious cases than mediation boards and therefore presentation, examination of evidence and interpretation of law takes a longer time. But if other developing countries can have functioning judicial systems, it begs the question as to why Sri Lanka seems to be losing the battle.
Political corruption cases aside, Sri Lanka is struggling to attract investment because it has both a complicated Court system and no arbitration. This was to be proposed as part of the Colombo International Financial City and may be taken forward under the new Government but it needs to be fast-tracked. Until then Sri Lanka has to find a way to improve its law framework regarding investment if it genuinely wants to climb up the World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings.
Better funding, training, more judges and simpler laws are essential. But timely implementation may be the most important thing of all. The new Justice Minister certainly has his work cut out to deliver reforms.