Saturday, 8 September 2012


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Former Chief Justice Victor Tennekoon’s birth anniversary:

Maintained independence and dignity of judiciary

In every generation there are those who add lustre to the learned professions. These men are remembered as ornaments of their respective profession long after they are gone. Victor Tennekoon (QC) who was one of the eminent Chief Justices of Sri Lanka was without doubt such a person and his birth anniversary falls tomorrow, September 9, 2012. In fact, he was the first Kandyan on the Bench and hailed from a distinguished family. One of his brothers Herbert became the Governor of the Central Bank and another brother George became a Professor of Medicine.

Former Chief Justice
Victor Tennekoon (QC)

Constitutional law

Victor Tennekoon was educated at St Anthony’s College, Kandy. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of London, he entered the Ceylon Law College and passed out as an Advocate and was called to the Bar on May 4, 1943. Having practised at the Kegalle Bar, he joined the Department of Attorney General on October 1, 1946 as a Temporary additional Crown Counsel and specialized in Civil work, although he did prosecute in some important cases including the Coup case of 1962. On November 1, 1955, he was appointed as acting senior Crown Counsel and was confirmed as senior Crown Counsel on May 2, 1956.

On various occasions between April 1, 1957 and June 1961, he functioned as Deputy Solicitor General. He then went on a senior fellowship in constitutional law awarded by the Asia Foundation between September 26, 1961 to March 9, 1962 at the Columbia University, United States. In 1964, he was appointed as Solicitor General and the Dignity of Silk was conferred upon him in 1965.

Great judge

After serving three years on the Supreme Court Bench as a Puisne Judge, he was appointed as Attorney-General in 1970 and then served as a Judge of the Court of Appeal (which replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the final appellate Court of Sri Lanka) and finally rose to be Chief Justice in 1974.

As Chief Justice, he maintained tremendous courage and high degree of Judicial Statesmanship. In fact, in every sense of the term he was lofty, serene and unshakable. As Chief Justice of Sri Lanka he discharged his responsibilities with distinction and honour and preserved the dignity of the courts and the image of justice.

It is very often said that “great men whether great social reformers, great thinkers, eminent judges, lawyers and men of letters differ from common man only in one thing. They give life a meaning, a purpose and dedicate themselves to that purpose. They testify to the truth and refuse to compromise whatever the cost”. Further, the secret of Chief Justice as a good judge was that he was deeply religious and the loftiness of his character was remarkable. Besides, he had an iron will and his life was an open book. He practised what he preached and discharged his duties without fear, favour, ill-will or bias while on the Bench Chief Justice Victor Tennekoon lived upto the essence of the art of judging namely an attentive and receptive ear, a mind open to conviction and a will resolved to do justice regardless of personal motives or prejudices.

He also possessed in full measure the learning ability, the quickness of thought and the capacity for hard work which enabled him to attain eminence as a great judge. In fact, a great judge must be a man with a spark of greatness to start with and his job is the applied practice of wisdom and justice. Indeed, Chief Justice Victor Tennekoon was a great personality who withstood storms and blizzards with total and natural equanimity and stirred the Courts with great dexterity through perils.

Further, Victor Tennekoon served the country in many other capacities. He was secretary to the Kandyan Peasantry Commission from March 14, 1949 to March 5, 1951, in collaboration with Sir Humphney Waldock.

Tamil literary work

He advised the government on the International Law aspects of the nationality problems of persons of Indian origin. From 1970 to 1980, he was chairman of the Presidential Commission of Development Councils. From 1979 to 1984, he was Chancellor of the university of Peradeniya which conferred the Degree of Doctor of Laws (LL D) on him. He had also served, chairman of the Law Commission, chairman of the Salaries Review Committee, chairman of the LB Finance Company, chairman of the Central Hospitals Ltd and as Deputy Chairman of the Commercial Bank of Ceylon. In 1984, he chaired the Ministry of Justice Law’s Delays Seminar and the committee on the Courts of Appeal. He was honoured with the title ‘Deshamanya’ in 1986 in the first ever Independence Day National Honours List.

As a Judge, he was very patient especially in the Assizes. Once in the Jaffna Assizes, where he presided, the irrepressible P Ragupathy appeared for the accused in a murder case and in the course of his address to the Jury he quoted two lines from the famous Tamil literary work, ‘Thirukural’ and paraphrased and commented and explained those two lines to the Jury for two long days. Finally, when Ragupathy moved on to something else, Justice Tennekoon interposed, “Excuse me, Mr Ragupathy, have you finished with your comments on the Thirukural”? “Yes, My Lord,” replied Ragupathy. “I do admire the brevity of the original,” quipped the judge. All who were present in Court laughed. The case went on and the Judge summed up for an acquitted.

Of the human side of Victor, one could write at length - his love of children, his attachment to his family, his artistic talents, his skills at Tennis and Billiards, his sense of humour, his unobtrusiveness and his concern for others. These all added to his stature as a person, but behind the unobtrusiveness and shyness, there was a will of steel, determined to do justice to all people according to the law. His daughter Priyani (LL B Honours, Sri Lanka, LL M Monash) is in the legal profession. It is to be hoped that his example and inspiration will encourage the emergence of judges of like dedication in future, thus strengthening the Sri Lanka judiciary in their time as he did in his.

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