Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane has borne witness to a lifetime of strife in Sri Lanka. Photo: Julie Kessler
Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane has borne witness to a lifetime of strife in Sri Lanka. Photo: Julie Kessler

Following Sri Lanka’s peaceful independence from Britain in 1948, relative calm ensued for decades – but that was followed by a quarter century of civil war along ethnic lines that raged between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil LTTE, known as the Tamil Tigers, from 1983. Hostilities finally ended in 2009, and with open elections in 2015 resulting in the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, the restoration of democracy and freedoms is well underway. A generation that grew up knowing only conflict now has reason for hope and optimism.

That said, there are still occasional ethnic flare-ups requiring government intervention. Just last week the Sri Lankan government declared a nationwide, 10-day state of emergency, initiated curfews and blocked social networks, including Facebook and WhatsApp. This resulted following the death of a young reporter in the central highland district of Kandy, which is famous for tea production. A week prior, in what has been called a road-rage incident, a Sinhalese truck driver died in an eastern region following injuries sustained at the hands of a group of Muslim men.

Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane has borne witness to much of this strife. Hers has also been a lifetime of firsts.

In 1977, she worked in the US, at the Consumer and Narcotics Division of the District Attorney’s office in Fort Collins, Colorado. Then, in 1978, she became Sri Lanka’s first female State Counsel to the Attorney General’s office – and in 1988 the first female High Court judge and first female Admiralty Court judge. In 1998, she became the first female Court of Appeals judge and the first female President of the Court of Appeals. Justice Tilakawardane was appointed to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in 2003 and served until mandatory retirement in 2014, when she turned 65. Currently, she is a consultant to Sri Lanka’s Judges Institute, serves as an international arbitrator and is on numerous international panels on children’s rights and gender issues.

Educated at Bishop’s College, Colombo, Justice Tilakawardane received her law degree from Sri Lanka Law College in 1974.

Asia Times spoke to this remarkable jurist over lunch in Colombo last week.

Julie L. Kessler: You have literally watched political and judicial history in Sri Lanka play out before your eyes. Having experienced so many ‘firsts,’ do you believe the road is now significantly easier for women in the Sri Lanka judiciary?

Shiranee Tilakawardane:  Both yes and no. The numbers are better now, especially in the prosecutor’s office. The problem, however, is sustainability of numbers as one climbs the ranks. This is especially the case at the Supreme Court level. In private practice, women are not appointed to the President’s Counsel (equivalent to appointment to the Queen’s Counsel in the UK and other Commonwealth jurisdictions) despite having stellar qualifications and capabilities. Only one woman was appointed and that was seven years ago! Diversity and inclusion are sadly still very real issues in modern Sri Lanka.

JLK: What was your most memorable experience while working at the DA’s office in Fort Collins, Colorado?

HST: I was stunned by the sheer numbers of murders surrounding the drug trade. That said, the workload was significantly higher in Sri Lanka mainly because there were, and still are, no paralegals and little in the way of support staff to assist judges. Ultimately it’s an economic question of resources and allocation. Still today, case backlogs in Sri Lanka are intense. Law and order investment in our system is key. A critical evaluation of our judicial system is needed to diminish the roadblocks to an effective judiciary.

JLK: Since President Sirisena was elected in 2015, many reforms have been initiated to restore freedoms curtailed during the civil war. Is there a strong public sense that these reforms have been successful?

HST: Some reforms have been notable because people certainly have a greater sense of freedom, especially respecting free speech. However, there has been a lack of speed in relation to physical development in terms of infrastructure and jobs. There are still very real hardships affecting many in our society, such as price increases for basic goods and services, as well as housing that need to be addressed.

JLK: What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead for the Sri Lankan judiciary?

HST: By far the biggest challenge is the enormous case backlog. Also, the lack of a comprehensive code of judicial ethics and system transparency. The judiciary and cases need to be better monitored. For example, cases involving children and other vulnerable witnesses are not being fast-tracked through the system as they should for their own protection. Also, judicial support systems involving technology (such as e-filing), and necessary safeguards that are present in other developed countries, are simply absent here.

JLK: Much has been written in the press about judicial corruption. How pervasive is it?

HST: There are allegations of corruption and politicization. My sense is that the publicity is greater than the reality. Sri Lanka does, however, need strong judicial oversight. The Judicial Service Commission currently in place is overburdened to the extreme since they are required to do everything from A to Z: staff hiring, judicial appointments, training and removal, courthouse upkeep, etc. Without a highly specialized, effective judicial committee to oversee judicial conduct, the critical judicial transparency necessary for efficacy and fairness isn’t possible.

JLK: What has been the most negative effect of social media on the judiciary?

HST: Judges are often subjected to intense criticism even where the decision may be the right one. Social media has become a court of electronic opinion. This is not just a domestic problem but really it’s a global one. Judges are not appointed to serve in order to issue popular decisions, but correct ones. This is really the biggest challenge for this next generation of lawyers and judges to effectively address. Technology has developed so rapidly that it has today surpassed the legal system’s ability to properly police it. The same is true in policing the nefarious uses of the dark web and software programs such as Tor onion routers that allow internet users to engage in illegal activities with complete anonymity.

JLK: Having lived through so many firsts, if you could give one piece of advice to your 26-year old self, what would that be?

HST: To keep at the forefront [and] that nothing comes to stay, but that everything comes to pass.

JLK: Of your many accomplishments, what are you most proud of?

HST: Being a great mother to my two children (now ages 38 and 33), while maintaining my professional commitments.

JLK: Is there anything you would change about your long and colorful career?

HST: There is actually not much I would change. I have most certainly enjoyed what can best be described as a roller coaster ride.

Julie L. Kessler is an attorney based in Los Angeles, a columnist for several publications, and the author of the award-winning book ‘Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.’ She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com