Legal Aid Commission
S S Wijeratne - Illustrious architect and mentor of modernized Legal
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
May his journey in Sansara be light and short
- Justice Hector S Yapa