Friday, 25 April 2014 00:00
In the final analysis every system will be judged by its delivery. However high-minded its initial intention, however appealing its concept, a system breathes and bleeds in the streets where it meets the people it is to serve.
When it comes to the legal system this is even truer, given that the purpose of its existence is to bring justice to the people. Without venturing into endless discussions on the meaning of justice, we can simply conclude that a legal system should be seen to work in a manner that is acceptable to a reasonable person. If most of society begins to view the system as essentially unfair or unnecessarily oppressive, we can conclude that the system has failed us.
During this holiday season I was made aware of the experiences of two citizens with an aspect of law and order in this country which bears repetition. They are unrelated events and happened to persons who are typical of the millions of the simple folk who make up the bulk of our population.
I will endeavour to relate the stories as told to me without drawing any moral conclusions as far as possible. In a system which is bad, various individuals who play only a routine role in the complex system can hardly be blamed for it individually. Even if aware of the awful manner in which the system works towards its recipients, the functionaries of the system are hardly in a position to change it. If at all, it is us as a collective, who deserve the reprobation of the world on account of our inability to put things right in this little country.
Both these experiences are to do with the aspect of the procedural as distinguished from substantive law. Serving of summons, producing of exhibits (commonly referred to as productions in court) are mainly matters of procedure generally handled by fiscals and the police. But they are acting under powers and procedures given by the law .It is the procedures that bring the people in contact with the substantive law.
Gas tank in court
The first experience was related to me by a man who I would describe as a person of humble station. He works as a driver while his wife works on certain days as a domestic aid. They live somewhere near Piliyandala. I was told that his take-home salary was approximately Rs. 15,000 a month. He has one child who is attending school.
About two years back somebody broke into their little home and stole the gas cylinder used by them for cooking. The Police apparently were quite efficient in their investigations and found the thief and recovered the cylinder within a short period. It is generally said that most of such small time thieves today are drug addicts. The suspect was charged and a case commenced in the Magistrate Court in Nugegoda.
As it was needed for their daily cooking, the victim (the driver) pleaded with the Police to release the gas cylinder to them. Of course the Police were quite reasonable and after a somewhat lengthy documentation process released the cylinder.
But there was as important condition to the release of the cylinder. The victim was told that every time the case came up in court he was to produce the gas cylinder in court.
"Many a time we wonder why a country with such a high literacy rate as ours should have so a mediocre track record. From law and order to public life, our standards leave much to be desired"
Since then there had been about four court hearings. For reasons the victim does not quite comprehend, the case has not been heard yet. On each hearing date the poor man has dutifully taken the gas cylinder to court. To do that he had solicited the assistance of a neighbour who owns a three-wheeler and agreed to undertake the trip for a token Rs. 500. Of course the gas cylinder has now been changed several times as required when the gas runs out. As far as the victim understands it, the court is keen to sight ‘a’ gas cylinder in the course of the hearing.
The second episode concerns a female, a long-retired Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths from the Kandy area. She is now in her early ’80s. Apparently at the time she got appointed to this post, it was a voluntary service. People of some recognition in the area took up these positions more as a service than an occupation. Presently her main income is the support she receives from her children working overseas.
A few days ago she had received a stern telephone call from a Police Station somewhere in the south of the country informing her that she was required to attend a court hearing there. As usual the Police had given no further information. Naturally the former Registrar whose heath condition is rather uncertain was very worried about this sudden and abrupt summons to a faraway place.
Some of her family members then got involved and after much calling about had discovered that the summons concerns a marriage certificate attested by her many years ago. Apparently one party had committed a marital offence, perhaps bigamy. The evidence expected from the Registrar is what one may call formal evidence. She of course now has only a hazy memory of things that happened a few decades before.
The trip down south posed a huge problem for the family. It was not only costly but also in view of her feeble condition needed other arrangements. They got together and arranged a taxi and an attendant for the old invalid lady. The costs to them on account of this very unwelcome summons are estimated at about Rs. 15,000 for the day! To add to their misery, after all that the case was not taken up as the judge was on leave that day!
Recently I came across an interesting and controversial book by Richard Lynn titled ‘Race Differences and Intelligence’. Lynn is also credited with other books such as ‘IQ and Global Inequality’ and ‘IQ and the Wealth of Nations’.
Much of the research in this area of race and intelligence is challenged on grounds of bias and validity. Poor data collection and restricted samples used put some of the conclusions in doubt. What is IQ and how IQ is assessed are also subjects open to debate. However, as it stands, in countries like Israel, where IQ testing is fairly advanced, discernible tendencies have been suggested in various Jewish immigrant groups who have come there from different parts of the world. Perhaps such an approach is not without validity when we examine our systems and methods.
Today most countries have systems which are more or less of common origin and therefore very similar. But, it cannot be denied that while in certain countries these systems work to an acceptable standard while in others they have descended into chaos and corruption.
Many a time we wonder why a country with such a high literacy rate as ours should have so a mediocre track record. From law and order to public life, our standards leave much to be desired.
The events described in the two episodes above are hardly unusual. They happen to thousands of people every day. If every practice or method is an illustration of the intelligence of the society concerned, these two episodes too should be a pointer to the level of this important ingredient therein.
To have laws and systems that do not unnecessarily inconvenience its people seem beyond our collective intelligence and abilities. A simple reform like admitting in evidence the notes of a policeman (supported with a photograph if necessary) of the released gas cylinder would have saved a lot of time and money for the driver, who after all is only a victim of a crime.
Sadly, so enmeshed are we in the running of the existing system that a better system is not even in our vision presently. Such are these times!
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)