Moratuwa Municipal Council Mayor Saman Lal Fernando who obstructed Covid-19 anti-epidemic duties of health workers proclaiming himself as an unofficial magistrate emphasizes the issue of the country’s legal system not changing in a timely manner, senior lawyers point out.
The ‘token’ issued by the mayor to obtain the Covid-19 vaccines read ‘Saman Lal Fernando, Mayor, Justice of the Peace and Unofficial Magistrate’.
The mayor, who visited a vaccination program in the Moratumulla area in Moratuwa yesterday (27), pressured the medical officer who conducted the program to give the vaccine only to those who had been issued with ‘tokens’. The police officers there were criticized for not taking any action regarding the mayor’s behavior.
However, after surrendering to the Mount Lavinia Police today (28), the Mayor was produced before court and remanded till June 11th.
Misleading the people
Former Senior State Counsel of the Attorney General’s Department and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Ghazali Hussain said that the using the term ‘Unofficial Magistrate’ by the mayor, who is not a lawyer or a person involved in the judiciary, is misleading and an attempt to deceive the public that he has other civil powers.
The senior lawyer further stated that an ordinance drafted during the British rule had given permission to the mayor of a municipal council to be used as an unofficial magistrate, a practice which is not at all appropriate at present and has no authority at present.
In the privileges granted in 1947, Part III of Ordinance No. 29 of 1947, it is mentioned about the Mayor and the Deputy Mayor. Article 16 under that is as follows,
‘The Mayor and Deputy Mayor of each Municipal Council may hold the positions of Justice of the Peace and Unofficial Magistrate in the administrative district in which the relevant Municipal Council is located during his term of office.’
The Mayor of the Moratuwa Municipal Council exercised the right vested in him by this Article in 1947. Attorney-at-Law Nimal Ranasinghe points out that this official name has been given in comparison to the time when the relevant ordinance was introduced.
“In the past, government agents used to hear cases. It was a provision at that time. It is not active today. In the past, cases were heard in village council courts by the chairman of the village council. Even they are not present today.’
The role of an unofficial magistrate
Currently, the unofficial post of Magistrate is held by the Ministry of Justice. The role of the Justice of the Peace and the unofficial magistrate is stated on the ministry’s website as follows:
“The power to direct the judiciary on the day of the magistrate ‘s absence is vested in the Justice of the Peace and the unofficial magistrate.”
Only a person with 15 years of experience as a lawyer can apply for this. An application form obtained from the relevant subject officer of the Ministry should be filled and directed to the Secretary of the Ministry. All their professional qualifications should be certified in the application and the certificates attesting to them should be attached.
According to the website of the Ministry, the officer in charge of this subject is currently the Director in charge of the relevant division, Madhusanka Dissanayake.
Our attempt to contact the Director for more information on this methodology was unsuccessful as he was not in the office due to the prevailing situation and the person who answered the office phone said that he did not know the Director’s mobile phone number.
How people are oppressed
The Mayor of Moratuwa, cannot use the term ‘unofficial magistrate’ if the rules are amended according to the official methodology mentioned on the Ministry website. Commenting on this, Senior Counsel Ghazali Hussain said that the relevant laws and regulations have not been amended in a timely manner which has allowed some individuals to indirectly oppress the people.
“One of the positions I get when I am a State Senior Counsel in the Attorney General’s Department is the Justice of Peace for the whole island. It’s just an honor to the rank. I have never used it to sign and seal any affidavit. The reason is that if such an affidavit is filed from the other side of a case filed by the Attorney General’s Department, what answer can I give about my professional dignity? So, these have to be changed. It is left there to just exist thinking that there is no harm. But politicians use them to their advantage.”