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Legal Aid Commission

S S Wijeratne - Illustrious architect and mentor of modernized Legal Aid

When we, at the Legal Aid Commission remember Mr S.S Wijeratne, our Chairman, we remember a man of love, kindness, merriment and flamboyance. We remember an inspirational figure who single headedly steered the Legal Aid Commission to great heights in the past 10 years. We remember a mentor who could command authority, attention and respect from his colleagues, staff and friends with only a smile and a few words.


Former Legal Aid Commission (LAC) Chairman S S Wijeratne paying a courtesy call on President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees.

In 1979, our Chairman ventured into a long and distinguished career in humanitarian work, which he continued to serve with the utmost dedication, right until the very end. He joined the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in which he held esteemed posts, such as, the Assistant Chief of Mission (Pakistan), Legal Advisor (Asia), Acting UNHCR representative (Sri Lanka), General Legal Counsellor (Geneva), the UNHCR representative in the Philippines. His final posting was as the UNHCR Head of Mission in Afghanistan. During this period he was entrusted with the co-ordination of two important Regional Consultative processes in South Asia, Central Asia, South West Asia and the Middle East (CASWAME). This lead to the conceptualisation of a model law on refugees in 2004, which resulted in the formulation of the South Asian Declaration on refugees and internally displaced persons. This Declaration is considered a landmark development in refugee protection norms in South Asia.

After a long and fruitful career with UNHCR, our Chairman returned to Sri Lanka with a vision to strengthen and stronghold the legal aid network within the country. He dedicated the last ten years of his life to establishing a giant legal aid network in the country, and one which is, arguably the best in South Asia. Thus, a small body consisting of 10 centres expanded into a network of 74 centres, located all over Sri Lanka.

“Justice like many other commodities, desirable goods and services in the world is not free. Hence it is only in theory that it is equally available. If a justice seeker is too poor to pay the lawyers’ fees there is little that even an independent judiciary could do about it. The judges mete out justice according to law once a case is brought before them. The wealth of a person cannot be considered. The poor and the underprivileged do not have the means even to take their grievances before courts. Unless this anomaly is rectified, the Rule of Law cannot be said to prevail in a society.”

Our Chairman was a visionary who did not only dream, but lived and made his dreams a reality. His untiring efforts have led to a Legal Aid Commission that is a far reaching body, working to ensure that the law reaches out its arms to everyone, including the poor and the vulnerable, right across the island.

In 2001 he was appointed to the Constitutional Council established under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. This body was created to foster good governance and to avoid political bias in the areas of public service appointments. He, together with the then Chief Justice initiated and established the National Centre for Victims of Crime. This stemmed from his strong belief that a country cannot have a fair criminal justice system unless the victims and witnesses are protected in all the stages of the justice process.

He also believed that Courts are not the only answer for dispute resolution and that people at the grass root level of society will have better chances of justice if alternative dispute resolution mechanisms were followed, such as mediation and counselling. This led to the establishment of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute (ADRI) which remains the sole professional mediation training institute in the country.

In addition, he also took steps to establish an Elders Legal Unit in order to assist the ageing population in Sri Lanka, considered a marginalized group with regard to access to legal aid. While serving as a member of the National Council of Elders, the Chairman initiated action to establish more than 600 Elders’ Societies at the village level.

Apart from all this, he was an excellent and patient teacher, something he excelled in, since his University days. He was the first lecturer to teach Criminal Law in Sinhalese at the Sri Lanka Law College. He was also a good story teller. Whether it be an anecdote about a Court room drama during the time of greats, such as, Colvin R De Silva and H L De Silva , his own in-depth interpretation of the Ramayana or his stories of his days as a humanitarian worker, one could sit and listen to him for hours at an end, absorbing so much from his vast knowledge and experience.

One sits and wonders whether it is humanly possible for a single man to have made so many significant changes in society. But for Mr. Wijeratne, life was all about dreaming and making these dreams come true. He lived his life like a cup of over flowing wine - filled with energy, enthusiasm, a creative spirit, and an amusing remark for anything and everything that life threw his way.

Hence, it is not fit to shed tears on his passing away. Instead, the LAC will like to remember our Chairman as someone who will continue to stay with us, his indomitable spirit blessing and guiding us, as we continue the work he began with so much love.


THANK YOU SIR

Sir, what can we do without you. For all you did and for what you were, we will always be grateful. Words cannot express our feelings, nor our thanks for all your guidance. If the world had more people like you, it would be a better place. Sir, you did make a difference. Anyone who deserve appreciation must have done some great work and you are one of them. Sir, you were the heart and soul of the Legal Aid Commission. We deeply appreciate your dedicated commitment towards legal aid in Sri Lanka. Sir, your death has left a vacant space which no one else can fill. From the bottom of our hearts we thank you Sir, for all what you have done.

“God saw you getting tired
So he put his arms around you,
And whispered “Come with me”
With tearful eyes we watched you
And saw you pass away.
Although we loved you dearly
We could not make you stay.
A golden heart stopped beating
Hard working hands at rest.
God broke our hearts to prove to us
That HE only takes the best”.


S.S.Wijeratne - Long career in Humanitarian service

The much loved and respected Somapala Samarasinghe Srimega Wijeratne, Chairman, Legal Aid Commission of Sri Lanka is no more. He was a distinguished Sri Lankan known both in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was born on February 20, 1938 at Ratmale (Sravasthipura), a small town five miles from Anuradhapura on the Kurunegala Road.

His father Tikiri Banadara Wijeratne hailing from Uduwawela, Kandy had moved out of his home town in early 1920’s to become the Superintendent of Sravasti Estate owned by the famous Philanthropist W.A.de Silva. SSW’s father was a classmate of the first Sri Lankan Non Executive President, William Gopallawa at Dharmaraja College, Kandy. SSW’s mother Daisy Samarasinghe came from a family living in Hulftsdorp and the D.A.Samarasinghe, auctioneer & Broker and James St. V. Perera, a Proctor by profession, were some of her relations.

SSW commenced his early education at Sravastipura School and then proceeded to St.Bernadette’s College, Polgahawela. At that time the Principal of that School was the man who wrote the famous English Grammar Book used during that period “The Practical English”. Thereafter, in 1950 SSW joined Dharmaraja College, Kandy. Famous Principals of Dharmaraja College, L.H. Methananada, S.A. Wijetilake, S. Godage and Major E.A. Perusinghe were of high integrity and worthy of respect and emulation by the students. There is no doubt that the lives of these men would have influenced the life and outlook of young SSW.


Former Legal Aid Commission (LAC) Chairman S S Wijeratne addressing a function sponsored by the Legal Aid Commission.

SSW did extremely well in his studies and had the honour of winning the coveted George Keyt Prize for the “Best Student”. He was a College Prefect and led the school Sinhala and English debating teams. He also had the distinction of winning the coveted “Thassim Gold Medal “ at the All Island English Oratorical Contest in 1957. Recently in recognition of his outstanding service to humanitarian causes, both nationally and internationally, the Dharmaraja College Old Boys’ Union at its 117th Anniversary Celebrations 2004, awarded him a Felicitation Plaque honouring him as an outstanding “Rajan”.

SSW entered the University of Ceylon, Peradiniya in 1959 and after a fruitful career in the University, Graduated in 1962. In the University, SSW resided at Jayathilaka Hall where he was made the hall president and a member of the English and the Sinhala debating teams. He also led the University Sinhala Debating team. During his second year at the University he was elected the President of the students council, a post very popular among undergraduates.

After Graduation, SSW commenced his teaching career at Baragedera Vidyalaya, a school close to Kulliyapitiya. His stay in this school was short, since he had to move to Colombo, having secured admission to the Ceylon Law College. While doing his Law studies at Law College, he also used his time to function as a lecturer at the Sri Lanka Vidyalaya, Maradana, a University College affiliated to the Vidyalankara University.

At Law College, SSW had a brilliant career. At the advocate’s Preliminary, Intermediate and Final Examinations he obtained first classes which was a rare achievement during that period. SSW as a law student stayed at “Voet Inn”, No. 19, Barnes Place, Colombo 7, which was the hostel for the law students. Later, he also functioned as the Sub Warden of “Voet Inn”. While at Law College, SSW represented Sri Lanka at the Australian law students seminar held in Singapore in 1966. He apprenticed under A.K. Premadasa P.C. and took his oaths as an Advocate of the Supreme Court, before Justices T.S. Fernando and H.N.G. Fernando on June 26, 1967. As a lawyer he was able build up a practice both in Colombo and outstation courts and the bulk of the cases he appeared were rent and ejectment cases.

In addition to his practice as a lawyer, SSW devoted his time to serve in various other capacities. In 1970, SSW was appointed as a lecturer and examiner at the Sri Lanka Law College. In fact, he was the first lecturer to teach Criminal Law in Sinhala at Law College. In the same year, he was appointed as a lecturer in Company Law at the Institute of Chartered Accountants. He functioned as an External Examiner for the LLB Final Examination at the University of Colombo.

Further, he was appointed Director (Legal) of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation and in that capacity, he led the Sri Lankan delegation to re-negotiate maritime insurance claims to Moscow and Zurich. He was also instrumental in establishing a branch of the Insurance Corporation in the Maldives.

SSW was appointed as a Judge of the Industrial Court and a Member of the Public Performance Board. He was one of the Members to be appointed to the First Press Council in 1974, where A.K. Premadasa PC was the Chairman. As a member of the Press Council he assisted in drafting a Code of Ethics for Journalists recommending a self regulatory mechanism which has now come into operation.

In 1979, SSW started his long career in humanitarian service by joining the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva as a Legal officer. The UNHCR is a humanitarian service organization assisting refugees who flee their country due to persecution or generalized violence or violation of human rights. After serving a few months at the UNHCR in Geneva, SSW was posted as the Assistant Chief of Mission (Legal) in Islamabad, Pakistan. His tasks was to head the Legal Department which was dealing with the influx of three million Afghan refugees to Pakistan as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In addition to the mass influx of Afgham refugees, there were Iranian refugees, specially, the minorities like Bhais and Christians who were escaping to Pakistan.

In 1983, SSW was appointed as Protection Officer for South West Asia at the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva. In this capacity he complied the Report on refugees and migratory movements of Afghan & Iranian refugees. In 1985, SSW was appointed as Legal Adviser for Asia, based in Bangkok. It was during this period that he assisted the Government of Papua New Guinea to draft their laws relating to refugees.

As a result of the 1983 communal riots referred to as the ‘Black July’ era, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees had taken refuge in India, Canada, Australia and in European countries. European Governments had set up an Inter-Governmental Consultative Mechanism to co-ordinate the policies in respect of Sri Lankan refugees. It was during this period that SSW was bale to convince the UNHCR in consultation with the Sri Lankan Government to establish an office in Sri Lanka in 1987. SSW was appointed the First Acting UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka based in Geneva and at the same time was in charge of the “South Asia Special Unit” covering SAARC countries. In this capacity SSW was able to establish UNHCR offices in Bangladesh and Nepal, where there had been longstanding refugee problems.

In 1989, SSW was appointed as the UNHCR Representative in the Phillippines. The Phillippines was an important destination for Vietnamese “Boat People” who fled to Vietnam after the withdrawal of US forces. As an UNHCR Representative, SSW was able to persuade the Government of the Phillipines to issue the 1951 Refugee Convention travel documents and set up a second transit center in Battan with the support of United Kingdom to house the refugees from Hong Kong pending resettlement. In view of SSW’s outstanding refugee services in the Phillippines, then President Cory Aquino decorated him with the “Aquino Memorial Award”.

In late 1993, SSW moved to UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva as General Legal Counsellor dealing with non refugee legal matters mostly of International Commercial Law.

He was also elected as the Chairman UNHCR Staff Council which enabled him to function as Co-Chairman of the Joint Management Committee and Member of the Appointment Promotion Board. It was during this period that he started the UNHCR Staff News Paper ‘Dialogue’ which became popular among the staff worldwide. During this period SSW was entrusted with the co-ordination of two important Regional Consultative process in South Asia and for Central Asia. South West Asia and Middle East (CASWAME). Further in consultation with the South Asian Eminent Persons group the “model law on refugees” was formulated in 2004 making way for the South Asian declaration on refugees and internally displaced persons. These are landmark contributions in the development of refugee protection norms in South Asia.

SSW’s final posting with UNHCR was as the Head of Mission UNHCR Afghanistan. In Afghanistan he had a very exciting schedule of work, since Afghanistan hosted the world’s largest internally displaced population. As Head of mission SSW’s decision to stay in Kabul and share the risk and misery of a war-worn city was highly appreciated by the authorities concerned. In 1981, the UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize and SSW as one of the active staff members of the UNHCR received an authenticated replica of the Nobel Peace Prize. He also institutionally received the Felix-Houphonet-Biogny Peace Prize in 1992. SSW’s desire for learning was such that while in the UNHCR, he completed the Post Graduate programme in Emergency Management at the Wisconsin University, USA and Diploma Course in Conflict Management and Preventive Diplomacy at the Shi lingberg Institute, Austria.

Even though SSW and his family were entitled to reside in Switzerland after retirement from the UNHCR, he opted to come back to Sri Lanka and continue his humanitarian services. Therefore, on his return, he accepted the post of Honorary Secretry-General of the Arbitration Center of the Institute of Commercial Law and Practice (ICLP) and adopted several measures to promote modern Commercial Arbitration in Sri Lanka, which included the commencement of a Diploma Course in Arbitration. Since 2000, he functioned as a Member of the Executive Council of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) and chaired the Sub-Committee on new legislation and arbitration. As nominee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, he was also appointed as a Member of the Consumer Protection Authority.

In 2001, SSW was appointed to the Constitutional Council (CC) established under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The sole purpose of creating the Constitutional Council was to promote good governance avoiding political bias specially in the area of appointments to the higher posts in the land. In 2002, on a suggestion made by the then Chief Justice Sarath N Silva PC, SSW took action to establish the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) for the promotion and protection of the rights of victims of crime in Sri Lanka. At present, action is being taken to enact legislation for the protection of the rights of Victims of Crime.

SSW was also instrumental in establishing the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute (ADRI) in order to promote mediation. Steps were also taken by this Institute to train village officials to mediate Tsunami Disputes. ADRI is today the only professional Mediation Training and Research Institute in Sri Lanka. SSW’s keen interest in the aging population of Sri Lanka prompted him to establish an Elders Legal Unit. In this connection steps were taken by Act No.9 of 2000, to establish the National Council of Elders. SSW while serving as a member of the National Council of Elders initiated action to established more than 6,500 Elders Societies’ at village level through out the Island.

SSW also devoted his time and energy to create a viable system of legal aid to help the indigent litigants in Sri Lanka. He chaired the Legal Aid Foundation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka from 2001 to 2004. In this capacity he setup Legal Aid programmes for displaced persons in the North East with the support of UNHCR. Since, December 2004, SSW in his capacity as Chairman of the Legal Aid Commission (LAC), was able to get financial support from the Government and other donors like the ADB, UNDP, USAID and Asia Foundation and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to expand Legal Aid Services in the Island. By this process, Legal Aid Commission was able to set up 75 Legal Aid Centers Island wide to serve indigent litigants. He further started a Legal Aid Page (weekly) in the Ceylon Daily News and also in the Sinhala newspaper Lankadeepa (fortnightly) to provide legal knowledge to the public.

SSW has written several articles on numerous subjects, such as, Legal Aid, Elders Rights, Internally Displaced Persons and refugees etc. He along with the late Upawansa Yapa P.C. former Solicitor General published a Sinhala book on pleadings.

S.S. Wijeratne married Rukmani Herat Gunaratne, daughter of Dr. V.T. Herat Gunaratne, Director of Health Services and WHO Regional Director in December 1969. Rukmani his wife has been his constant friend and companion for 43 years sharing with him the happy and difficult moments in his life. They have a son and a daughter. Son Shirantha works with Hewlett Placard in Zurich and the daughter Roshni with WHO in Geneva and her husband Sheahan with WIPO. They have a daughter, Kiara and son Michael.

May his journey in Sansara be light and short

- Justice Hector S Yapa

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