H. L. de Silva:
Fearless defender of the Bar
H. L. de
Within the short space of a few months we saw the passing away of two
legal giants - Mark Fernando, the great judge and H.L. de Silva, the
great lawyer. One attended my classes in Peradeniya and the other
attended classes with me in Colombo. I was a good friend of both.
H.L. went straight from University to Hulftsdorp to embark on a
career in a profession that held little hope for the unknown. He had
only his as yet undetected talent to help him. I went to Peradeniya
after graduation and to a different life, and I lost touch with H.L. I
did not see the discovery of his remarkable talent and his success after
success at the Bar at first hand. But the publications of the law
reports with his name appearing regularly was proof enough.
It was the time that saw the awakening of the judiciary as executive
decisions were being questioned through writs. H.L. with his sharp,
analytical mind and good library excelled in writ litigation. It was
also the time of great political activity and election petitions.
He became famous and a much sought after lawyer. This part of HLís
life was admirably covered by Lakshman Kadirgamar in his tribute on the
occasion of HL completing 50 years at the Bar (This was again published
in the newspapers after HLís death). On the same occasion I said that
one of his notable attributes was a fine speaking voice. In later life
he added to that talent a fascinating command of the English language to
express his thoughts and views.
HL was apolitical. A Methodist, the values of Christianity mattered
to him and guided his life. Educated at St. Peters at a time when
learning in English schools did not encourage in acquiring knowledge of
the history and culture of the people, HL tended to be conservative in
When Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Prime Minister with Felix Dias, his
old friend, as a powerful Minister, HL was dragged into SLFP circles but
only as a brilliant lawyer to match the many big names in UNP ranks.
HL began to be seen as anti-UNP but I doubt if he ever became a
SLFPer, a party that had joined with Marxists to push for radical
policies to serve the people. HLís approach to any controversial matter
was always clinical and legal, devoid of emotion, a trait he carried to
I met HL after many years when I came to practise. Even so, there was
a feeling of togetherness as with old friends. He was the same reserved
person whose only interest appeared to be the law. This of course did
change as we all know. By this time, i.e., post - 1977, the ranks of
lawyers appearing for the SLFP had depleted and I found myself a
stop-gap for HL.
The first great Constitutional law case, the Thirteenth Amendment to
the Constitution, was one HL should have led for Sirima Bandaranaike who
opposed the Amendment. But HL told me he had gone to the Timpu talks
with the Government delegation led by HW Jayewardene and he thought it
would be improper for him to challenge the Bill, which was the outcome
of those talks.
Had HL not taken this strict view of professional ethics and appeared
before the Supreme Court, given his ability and the insights into LTTE
goals that he had gained in Timpu he might have swung the odd vote that
was needed to defeat the Bill.
It surprised many that HL should accept the offer of going to New
York as our Permanent Representative to the UN. I saw it as a much
needed break from the arduous life of Hulftsdorp. As could be expected
Manel, who played an important part when HL was perfecting his arguments
to Court too welcomed it. By the time he returned many Constitutional
issues were in the melting pot and President Chandrika was ever
His views were often sought during the difficult times when the UNP
Government was in power. He prevented the Governmentís attempt to dilute
the Presidentís power to dissolve Parliament by a constitutional
Amendment and succeeded in gaining back key Ministries for the President
after a Reference to the Supreme Court. In all this and other important
issues and litigation Lakshman Kadirgamar and I were closely associated
HL gradually became preoccupied in Constitutional law studies. In
Timpu, he was suddenly faced with the possibility of the division of the
country as he wanted to remember it. This he saw as a terrible wrong,
constitutionally and historically.
It had to be stopped and he devoted his time, putting law books
aside, to reading and analyzing theories of federalism and accommodating
minority rights. He was not moved by pleas for devolution which he could
only see as the beginning of separatism. On this we would argue and
agree to disagree.
He did not think changes had taken place rapidly in the political
scene that could not be put right without major changes like the
Provincial Council system. There was nothing communal in his conclusions
and no invective was ever used on those who held a different view.
HL became concerned that there could be a wrong perception of him.
When his many articles and speeches rejecting devolution and federalism
were being collected for publication, HL even from his sickbed told me
that he hoped to write something new that would provide a deeper
philosophical basis - the thread that runs through his writings.
He did not live long enough to do that.Lastly, I like to pay a
tribute to an important aspect of HLís life that I saw. HL was a member
of the black-coated fraternity and pound to be so. In a way he did not
easily fit into a profession that had a penchant for gossip, salacious
anecdotes and ribaldry.
Once his work was done he quickly went home without sitting at a
table in the Lawyers Lounge. But his decency and good judgment impressed
everyone; they had great respect for him.
After 1977, the challenge to the UNP Government came from the Bar
which was strongly anti-UNP. Presidents of the Bar Association were
elected on this ticket. HL as the acknowledged leader of the Bar was
persuaded to come forward as President.
HL got the opportunity to meet many outstation lawyers to whom he was
only a name if not a legend, and also many young lawyers who were making
their presence felt.
As President we saw a different HL who would espouse human rights
causes without hesitation and this made him unpopular with the
government. He led the Barís protest at the torture and killing of a
young JVP lawyer by the police even to the extent of leading a march of
lawyers in Hulftsdorp carrying a placard. The Barís united protest at
the supersession of Justice Wanasundera as Chief Justice by President
Jayawardene was at the same time.
HL was not afraid to speak on behalf of the Bar even if it were to
remonstrate with judges when they overlooked judicial etiquette. I
remember a speech he made at a Bar Association gathering with judges
present as invitees when he made scathing criticisms of them much to
their annoyance. Later I told him that he had gone too far but he was
HL was not just one of the greatest lawyers of the country. He was a
good and honourable man. It is difficult to lose such a friend and
colleague. We all share with his wife, Manel and daughters in a deep
sense of loss.