Judging the Judiciary

Thursday, 29 November 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

AS the impeachment of the Chief Justice gets underway, an interesting international study gives perspective on pluses and minuses of the country’s Judiciary.

The latest report, the ‘Rule of Law Index 2012’ by World Justice Project, has revealed that Sri Lanka outperforms its regional peers in all but two dimensions of the rule of law. It was reported that the island also outpaces most lower-middle income countries in several areas, ranking second in criminal justice, and third in the dimensions of open government, effective regulatory enforcement, and absence of corruption.

The report provides country-by-country scores and rankings for eight areas of the rule of law. India ranks 78th among 97 countries in guaranteeing access to all civil justice. India, the report said, has a robust system of checks and balances (ranked 37th seventh worldwide and second among lower middle income countries), an independent judiciary, strong protections for freedom of speech, and a relatively open government (ranking fiftieth globally and fourth among lower-middle income countries).

However, corruption is a significant problem (ranking 83rd), and police discrimination and abuses are not unusual. Order and security – including crime, civil conflict, and political violence – is a serious concern (ranked second lowest in the world). Similar shortcomings are pointed out in relation to Pakistan and Bangladesh as well.

Despite Sri Lanka standing ahead of its neighbours, the report points out that, violence and human rights violations related to the legacy of a protracted civil conflict are serious problems. Other areas of concern are vigilante justice, delays and barriers to access civil justice, and lack of accessibility of official information.

Looking beyond the impeachment of the Chief Justice to challenges rooted at lower levels of Sri Lanka’s Judiciary the challenges highlighted by the report remain largely unaddressed. According to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as many as 380 former Tamil Tigers remain in State custody nearly four years since the end of the war.

While it is readily acknowledged that the judicial and investigative process for these detainees is a complex and sensitive subject, there is still need to promote transparency on legal procedures and give them adequate legal counsel. Not only would this promote the interests of justice it would also go a long way to promoting relations between Tamil people and the Government. Legal action on the large number of disappearances during the war, attacks on media and white van incidents are other examples of rights challenges.

Delays and barriers to justice are a continued problem with many people preferring to settle grievances out of court or simply ignore them due to the cost and time wastage of resorting to legal assistance. In sensitive legal cases such as child abuse, the delay of justice is both detrimental to reducing the menace as well as getting proper justice for the victim.

Lack of supplementary processors such as witness protection programs also undermine the quality of justice where most average people are too scared to give evidence against powerful offenders. A Right to Information Act has been lobbied, especially by media, for many years but has been concretely shot down by the Government. Even among the public, there is little consciousness for the advantage of such legislation to promote and quicken the process of justice.