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Government Gazette

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 : Sudath Silva

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 privileges.

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 involved.

Supreme Court

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.

Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake

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.

Secondary education

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 work.

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 London.

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 minor judiciary.

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 contributions.

Achievements, duties

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 rightful entitlement.

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

 

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