Wednesday, 19  February 2003  
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Justice Shirani Tilakawardene : Taking "male bastions" in her stride

Justice Shirani Tilakawardene

by Talia Jayasekera

In the first few moments of speaking with her, she gives the impression of someone wiser than her years. A combination of old fashioned manners with a touch of modern female dynamism.

A person who carries herself with dignity and communicates with great diplomacy. With her dazzling smile and captivating personality Shirani Tilakawardene is a true success story of today's modern woman.

Seeing this diminutive lady for the first time would catapult you to childhood memories of your school headmistress - that is the strict no-nonsense type. But this is quite the contrary when she speaks in her friendly soft spoken yet commanding voice.

For all her achievements, Justice Tilakawardene remains a woman who is humble.

For those of us who do not yet know who Shirani Tilakwardene is - please read on! Her dynamic personality, hard work and determination have made her the first female President of the Court of Appeal.

The appointment was made by President Kumaratunga and approved by the Constitutional Council. Having sat on the bench as a judge for the Appeal Court for many years, Justice Thilakawardene now carries both the duties of President and Judge on her shoulders.

The women of this country would be proud and at the same time envious of this enigmatic lady. A past student of Bishop's College, Justice Tilakawardene excelled academically from a very young age. She now sits on the Governing Board of this prestigious learning institution. From this point, she moved on to join the Sri Lanka Law College where she passed both the intermediate and final examinations for admission of Advocates with honours. Her legal career commenced with apprenticeship under Lalith Athulathmudali PC. This was followed by a tenure in the United States, where she served in the Consumer and Narcotic Division of the District Attorney's Office of Fort Colorado.

Tilakawardene has had many highlights and achievements in her career.

Most importantly she broke numerous gender barriers to become the first woman to be enrolled as a State Counsel in 1978.

She further established a record by being the country's first female judge of the High Court in April 1988. Her next admirable achievement was her appointment as the first woman Justice of the Court of Appeal in July 1998.

Justice Tilakawardene's winning personality has made her a very popular lady.

She is greatly admired by her peers and colleagues for her diplomacy and intelligence. Former Attorney General Sarath N. Silva was once quoted as saying-`You have admirably discharged your functions with firmness and fairness without distinction or discrimination when carrying out your duties as judge'. She has earned herself the rightful reputation of treating all alike and still maintaining firm judicial standards.

This does not end the list of achievements made by Justice Tilakawardene! She is the holder of a diploma in Forensic Medicine and Science from the University of Colombo. Humanitarian issues also play a big part in her life for she holds many positions in both national and international organisations.

She is the member of the International Panel of Jurists of the International Child Rights, a judge on the panel of International Environmental and Genetic Disputes and Issues, the Vice President of the Medico Legal Society and the Vice President of the Sri Lanka Cancer Society to name a few. In addition to this, she has won several awards including the celebrated Sakshi of India and the Women's International Award for contribution to human rights and equality rights.

"As a judge, two traits, independence and impartiality can never be compromised and is the heart of good decision making", said Justice Tilakawardene in her address at the Court of Appeal. "Impartiality is the absence of any form of bias or prejudice.

The law, in its majesty, declares that all people are equal before the law. This equality has been enshrined in the charter of human rights. But unfortunately this concept still remains to be effectively implemented in law".

"Appointed judges do not automatically become impartial and leave behind all their inherent predilection and biases that are found in all mortal people. Facts presented in a case will be evaluated through the lens of the judges' personal experiences.

When judges are taught to be conscious of these matters through social context education, they are able to identify the biases", she explained.

"In Social Context Education, judges are taught to understand constitutional equality principles and guarantees afforded under the Charter of Human Rights.

Social context education also helps a judge to identify myths and stereotypes that exist in society.

It identifies those who have historically been subject to systematic discrimination like the poor, the disabled, women, children, minorities, gays and lesbians", said Justice Tilakawardene.

"Social context education provides judges with specialized training in specialized subjects like environment, forensic developments such as invitro-fertilisation, stem cell genetics, cloning, genetically modified food and equips them with skills to deal with scientific and technical developments of the present and future", she asserted.

"Such social context education is desirable to keep judges current and confident in a changing world where the law does not remain static and society also evolves creating its own dynamism".

In her tenure as Court of Appeal President, Justice Tilakawardene plans to make changes to the system to facilitate a user friendly and a more disciplined Court Registry. "Special emphasis will made to prepare the briefs and list the older cases, especially cases relating to partition, divorce and adoption. I will be setting up an advisory committee of members from the Bench and the Bar to work with me and they will be representatives of the plurality of our legal community", she said.

"Furthermore, to clear the backlog of cases, especially the cases that could be resolved by mediation, provision for which already exists in the rules of this Court, I wish to employ the help of senior, experienced, retired Appellate Court judges".

"Also wastage of state funds that could be more efficiently utilised will be dealt with. Many inadequacies were found in the Auditors Report such stocks of paper and stationery that end up being unusable".

"With the help of the Bar Association, I hope to have a sexual harassment committee set up, which ideally should be set up in every work place", said Justice Tilakawardene.

In this 21st century, women have certainly made headway in all career ladders. The success story of Shirani Tilakawardene proves this fact.

Through it all, she has never lost her will to prove her self in this world dominated by men nor her femininity.

She truly is the woman to carry our justice system and the women of our country forward.

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