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Legal Aid Commission internship in Sri Lanka - May-24-12
Source: The Times - Law
The bursary winner sponsored by the Commonwealth in England Barristers’ Association talks about his month in Sri Lanka
Before starting pupillage this year I spent an incredibly rewarding month as an intern with the Legal Aid Commission (LAC) in Sri Lanka, after winning a bursary competition sponsored by the Commonwealth in England Barristers’ Association (CEBA).
Working in a Commonwealth country exposes you to a legal system that is uncannily familiar and yet different to the UK, often in surprising ways. Much of Sri Lankan law has been based on English common law since the British took power from the Dutch in 1796, including most commercial and criminal law. However, Sri Lanka is also one of the very few countries (along with South Africa) to continue to use Roman-Dutch law for its law of delict (tort) and land law.
This is combined with traditional legal systems, mostly governing marriage and succession: these include Kandyan law, applying to Sinhalese tracing their roots to the ancient kingdom of Kandy, the last to fall to the British in 1815; Theswalami law, applying to Tamils with links to the northern Jaffna province; and Muslim special law.
I worked in legal aid centres in the provincial centres Kurunegala and Kandy, and in the commission’s head office in Colombo. These are exciting times for the LAC, as it recently received funding from the Sri Lankan Government, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UNHCR to open new centres in the formerly war-torn northern and eastern provinces.
While Sri Lanka has one of the most extensive networks of legal aid centres in the South-East Asia region, the centres lack resources and funding, relying on the energy and dedication of committed volunteers and pro bono lawyers.
Another exciting recent development is the expansion of legal aid to criminal cases.
Unusually for a Commonwealth system, legal aid in Sri Lanka developed exclusively for civil law cases until a few years ago, when new legislation provided for the roll-out of an island-wide criminal defence service providing defendants with legally aided representation.
I spent much of my time creating presentations for legal awareness programmes addressing issues such as domestic violence, human rights and children’s rights. These are key areas where the LAC can provide free legal advice and representation, but the help it can give is under-utilised because of lack of awareness about fundamental rights and legal aid. I also gave training to lawyers in advocacy and gave talks on the UK legal aid system and the civil procedure rules, which are being considered as part of Sri Lankan law reform.
It was an interesting time to be working with Sri Lankan lawyers, as the second Channel 4 Killing Fields documentary came out while I was there. I found a diverse range of attitudes to the documentary. Many people acknowledged that there were problems with the way the military campaign was conducted at the end of the civil war, and that the Government seems to have an inability to tolerate criticism. There was also distrust and anger about the hypocrisy of Western governments denigrating Sri Lanka at a time of its recovery from a conflict that was prolonged in part because countries such as the US and UK tied the Sri Lankan government’s hands in dealing with home-grown terrorism, which such countries would never have tolerated for 30 years on their own soil.
One thing that tended to unite lawyers, whatever their political opinions, was the importance of the rule of law and fundamental rights: which, when fiercely defended, are the antidote to corruption, terrorism, and their net product, poverty, and to arbitrary government power in the form of police brutality, disappearances of people held under emergency powers and the stifling of a free press.
I was fortunate enough to meet people including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Dr Shirani Bandaranayake; Minister for Justice, Rauff Hakeem; Minister for External Affairs, Prof. G.L. Pieris; and the Speaker of Parliament, Chamal Rajapaksa. A common theme was the importance of the Commonwealth and of the UK and Sri Lanka’s shared common law tradition in strengthening the rule of law. There was great enthusiasm among the lawyers I met for stronger ties between the UK and Sri Lankan Bars of cooperation and information exchange, particularly because English is increasingly seen as a “bridging language” between Sinhala and Tamil, which can help repair some of the divides exacerbated in the civil war.
I had a wonderful time in Sri Lanka, enjoying the warm hospitality of the people and the beauty and rich history of the country: from the lush upland tea-growing country around the ancient city of Kandy (home to the Temple of the Tooth where the Buddha’s left canine is venerated, said to give the power to rule Sri Lanka) to the bustling British-cum-Sri Lankan Columbo.
This summer CEBA is sending an intern out to Ghana, and is running the same bursary competition next year, so look out for details.
The author is a pupil barrister, 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square
WHAT: The Commonwealth in England Barrister’s Association (CEBA) is a long-running organisation that exists to support lawyers from around the Commonwealth who are practising in England and to enable lawyers in England to support other lawyers who are practicing in other Commonwealth jurisdictions.
WHO: Mrs Justice Dobbs is CEBA’s president (the first president was Baroness Butler-Sloss). Stephen Leslie, QC, of Furnival Chambers is current chairman.
HOW: CEBA runs events and talks throughout the year. Previous speakers include: Lord Woolf; Lord Slynn; Lord Cook; the former Attorney General of India, Shri Soli Sorabjee; Benizir Bhutto from Pakistan; Mr Justice Adams from Zimbabwe; the deputy-president of the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa; Mr. Justice Louis Harms; Dame Janet Smith and Sir Geoffrey Nice. Membership is open to the judiciary of all Commonwealth countries, barristers in England and Wales, BPTC students and all lawyers who are members of professional legal associations across the Commonwealth.
Annual subscription fees are £10 (free for students and pupils). CEBA can also offer students mini-pupillages and marshalling with judges. Each year a bursary competition is run, giving the winner an opportunity to undertake a month-long internship in a Commonwealth country. This year an intern will spend a month in a legal aid centre in Accra, Ghana. For more information, contact the membership secretary Andrew Otchie at firstname.lastname@example.org
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