Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, first woman Chief Justice:
A shining example
Of the several thousands of advocates, proctors and attorneys-at-law
who were fortunate to enter the portals of the legal profession in Sri
Lanka, it is only a chosen few, just 42 in number, who had the supreme
privilege of adorning the coveted office of Chief Justice of this
country. Despite the enactment of the Sex Disqualification Removal
(Legal Profession) Ordinance as far back as in 1933, not one of them was
from the fairer sex.
Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake taking oaths
as Chief Justice before President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga looks on. Pic :
The 43rd, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake (to use her full name, Dr.
Upatissa Atapattu Bandaranayake Wasala Mudiyanse Ralahamilage Shirani
Anshumala Bandaranayake), who took her oath of office on May 18, was the
first ever woman to reach that pinnacle of our legal system. It has
certainly not been an easy or swift rise for this soft-spoken lady of
much learning and modesty.
She had already left an indelible imprint on our legal history, when
she became the very first woman member to have entered those hallowed
precincts, hitherto occupied exclusively by wise and learned men, who
were often past their middle age. She did so at the comparatively young
age of 38 years, some 15 long years ago.
Since then, and in particular since the resignation of the late
Justice Mark D. H. Fernando, making her the senior most Judge of our
Supreme Court for the past seven and half years, she has silently waited
on the sidelines, content only with performing the duties assigned to
her. She had functioned as the acting Chief Justice on a dozen or so
occasions, creating history again as the first female Judge to do so.
She is credited with the record of never having gone abroad on State
funds during this long period in office, a shining example to all public
officials and politicians, in these days of over-indulgence in perks and
Charter of Justice
When Governor North promulgated the Charter of Justice on April 18,
1801, creating the Supreme Court of Judicature of the Island of Ceylon,
consisting of the Chief Justice and a Puisne Justice (who were to be
qualified barristers of not less than five years standing in the English
or the Irish Bar), he may not have, even in his wildest dreams, foreseen
a female member of the Sri Lankan Bar from far away Kurunegala, clad in
the traditional Kandyan saree, taking the oath of office of Chief
Justice, before a Sri Lankan Head of State from Giruwapattuwa in the
deep South of this island, also clad in national dress, complete with a
hereditary Kurahan Satakaya.
Our proud little island, which enjoyed universal franchise even
before many Western nations did so, and also created history by
producing the first woman prime minister in the world in 1960, had to
wait for half a century more to see another of her own daughters, this
time, occupying the foremost position in its judiciary.
Dr. Bandaranayake's initial appointment to the Supreme Court was
unique in many other ways than her young age. She did not possess the
mandatory patronage, which was then considered a sine qua non for one's
ceremonious entry to the Bar or to the higher judiciary. She did not
come from the popular nurseries of the Judiciary, Attorney General's
Department or the private Bar, but the isolated academia, adding a new
dimension to the composition of our top court, as is the case with some
of the advanced jurisdictions of the world, such as in the US or Japan.
It is to her credit that she did not come from the local "Ivy League"
of sorts, of prestigious secondary schools in Colombo and other
principal towns. These uncommon links were by no means popular and, may
have irritated many a pious Brahmin of our Bar, who found other excuses
for their unfair stand in October 1996.
The possibility of her being on the Supreme Court bench beyond the
next quarter of a century too may not have pleased many with their own
agendas, as history has proved since then. While some prospered by these
events, some others paid dearly as a result of the subtle machinations
Getting back to the Supreme Court and its composition, among the
hundreds who had the privilege of adorning its bench, Dr. Bandaranayake
is the youngest and only the fourth in the over two-century period to
have possessed a Doctorate, the others being Dr. H. W. Tambiah QC, Dr.
C. G. Weeramantry and Dr. A. R. B. Amarasinghe.
During the past 16 years, she has amply demonstrated her credentials
to be on the Supreme Court Bench, whether it be the quality of her
judgments, judicial temperament or any other attribute of a
well-balanced and respected judge. Before not too long after her initial
appointment, many of the self-appointed guardians of the Bench and the
Bar were grudgingly indulging in self-criticism or confessions.
Reference must also be made to Dr. Bandaranayake's roots. It is not
uncommon for parents who are educationists to have children who excel in
studies. She and her only sibling Renuka, (an Engineering Graduate
married to Kapila Karunaratne, a mining engineer and now settled in
Perth) were no exceptions.
Born in April 1958 in Kurunegala, she was the elder daughter of Flora
and Wilson Bandaranayake and had to often change schools, disrupting her
studies and going through the agony of missing her beloved teachers and
friends, to keep pace with her father's frequent changes of places of
Finally, she ended up at Anuradhapura Central College, from which she
entered the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, on her outstanding
results at the G.C.E. Advanced Level Examination held in 1976.
Following the success of her secondary education, it was no wonder
that she obtained her Bachelor of Law Degree with a Second Class Honours
in the Upper Division, securing the first place in order of merit in
1980. In 1983 she was awarded Degree of Master of Philosophy from the
University of Colombo and, in the same year, was enrolled as an
Attorney-at-Law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.
Little would she have realised then that she was to one day occupy
the highest seat in that very court which admitted her to the legal
profession and, before that, similarly admitting thousands of aspiring
professionals. In 1986 she became the first woman in Sri Lanka to obtain
a Ph.D. in Law from a foreign university, the prestigious University of
Like the proverbial duck taking to the water, it was to the teaching
of the law, not to its practice, that she was naturally attracted. Dr.
Bandaranayake joined the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo as a
Visiting Lecturer in 1981 and rose to be the Head of the Department of
Law in 1987.
Having acted as the Dean of the Faculty of Law on several occasions,
she was appointed to that post in 1992 and as an Associate Professor of
Law "on merit" in 1993. She also acted for the Vice Chancellor of the
University of Colombo on several occasions.
Dr. Bandaranayake has served on several committees of the University
of Colombo and of other universities and, had also functioned as a
member of the Human Rights Task Force, the Incorporated Council of Legal
Education and the Law Commission of Sri Lanka. She is also a member of
the Judicial Service Commission, which is vested with the sanctified
responsibility of recruitment, transfer and the discipline of the entire
As the Chief Justice, Dr. Bandaranayake will now be the first female
head of this institution, from which both she and the other members
resigned some years ago, on a question of principle.
She has received several prestigious scholarships and awards, too
numerous to be mentioned. So are her academic publications and
With all her achievements and onerous duties, she always found the
time to be a dutiful wife and a loving mother. She is happily married to
Pradeepa Kariyawasam, an old Royalist cricketer and the present Chairman
of the National Savings Bank. Their only son, Shaveen Bandaranayake
Kariyawasam, has obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Computing
specialising in Multimedia, securing a First Class Honours and the first
place in order of merit from the University of Staffordshire, following
in the footsteps of his illustrious mother.
With 20 years in the study and the teaching of the Law at the
University level, another 16 years dispensing justice at the highest
forum, it is hoped that Dr. Bandaranayake will head our apex court
during the full term to which she is entitled.
No judge / Chief Justice has ever been restricted in his tenure. She
has proved that being young is no disqualification. On the contrary, it
only proves that she has been able to achieve in a shorter time, what
others take ages to do.
For her to be allowed to serve her full term as the head of our
Judiciary, by no means, is to be a concession bestowed on her, but her
The Bench, the Bar and public too have a legitimate right and a
reasonable expectation to receive the full benefits of Dr.
Bandaranayake's knowledge and experience during her full tenure, as
their counterparts do in other countries such as the US. It is then and
only then, will she be able to do justice to the oath of office she took
on May 18 unhindered in her efforts and to her optimum capacity.
Dr. Bandaranayake should then endeavour to bring further glory to her
motherland by playing her role in the international judicial arena, for
which we wish her the blessing of the Noble Triple Gem.
-Editorial Board of the Neethiya Foundation