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For those of you who have had the misfortune to experience a day (or worse, several days) in a Magistrate’s Courtroom here in Sri Lanka this may not come as a surprise, but for those who haven’t…well, I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy.

For starters, we have all read, or have been told of the horrendous backlog of cases in various courts all over the country and the wishful thinking of our incredibly intelligent politicians that these will soon be reduced. However, it isn’t surprising that instead of the backlog being reduced, it appears to be increasing – exponentially – and no wonder!

I had been summoned as a witness for the defense in a criminal case that involved my ex-employer and an employee, and was told by the defence attorney that it was only to verify my signature on a memorandum (concerning the defendant) that I had addressed to my assistants. Okay, so ‘no worries’ was how Java responded, although we knew full well the reputation of our judicial system and the time and convolutions that would probably be involved. The case had been dragging on since the charges were first filed in 2007! My first appearance in court was in July this year and (par for the course) was postponed for a few weeks later. I sent them a medical certificate issued by a friendly Physician – and just as well, as this date was also postponed. The next dates were for October 11th, 12th and 13th and I (along with a few fellow ex-coworkers) we were told to report at 9am.

I’m guessing that the scene at this Magistrates Court must be pretty much how it is at most (if not all) courtrooms across the country. The premises are heavily guarded by armed Police and some Army personnel and no one is allowed into the premises (so everyone is on the road outside) until the clock strikes 9, at which time it’s like the floodgates open and everyone waiting to enter pushes and shoves their way into the premises – but not inside the courtroom. No – not without further bullshit. Once the veranda has been conquered, more armed guards separate the genders into two lines for security checks. No telephones are allowed and I was asked to remove my silver bracelets and ear-ring. Wallets are also checked – don’t ask why! And then, very slowly, everyone gets inside and tries to find a seat on some wooden benches which have a hard time accommodating ample posteriors – and for those with long legs, well there is hardly any space between the benches, so that one’s knees will be prodding someone’s protruding buttocks for the next few hours. The heat is stifling and the rusting ancient fans revolving slowly do little to help. By now it is close to 10am and everyone’s awaiting the arrival of the Magistrate (ours was a dumpy, unattractive, middle-aged toughie) who arrived at 10.25am, duly announced by some guy in a red coat while everyone jumped up and bowed!

To make a long and dreary story shorter, a few defendants got into the dock and sure enough, for some reason or the other, their respective cases were postponed. We waited, listening to the slew of postponements until around 1.30pm, at which time we were told to return the next day. We showed up as ordered and it was a repeat performance, but now that we were ‘old hands’ at the game, we didn’t show up until 9.45am. This time the case was postponed again for the 19th – yesterday.

Getting in was much the same routine, except this time we had to take our shoes off and a cop shook them as if expecting something to be stashed inside! Again it was the same trip, but one case was actually heard (the crime occurred 20 years ago – and I ain’t shitting you!!!) and the cross-examining by the defendant’s attorney was so long-drawn and irrelevant, even the Magistrate had to intervene several times and set him straight. By now it was a few minutes past 2pm and Java was mouthing cuss-words silently and wishing there would be a fire at night that would decimate everything around. The next case to be called was the one that I would have to give evidence (or confirm that it was indeed my signature on the memorandum), however, as it was probably lunchtime for the esteemed Magistrate, the case was postponed again for the 21st – tomorrow!

A few questions occurred to Java whilst we were stewing in our frustration inside the courtroom and we mulled over them on the way back home. If indeed it is such a problem for the judicial system to cope with the backlog of cases, here are a few suggestions for the powers that be to consider:

1 – Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get the magistrates off their asses and get them to work by 9am? And why not go on until 4pm, like most other state employees do?
2 – Why arrest folk for ‘victimless crimes’ such as smoking a joint or make traffic violations a court-room experience, adding to the congestion of pending cases? Surely a ‘fining’ system could be established to process these misdemeanours speedily and without wasting state funds?
3 – Process cases as soon as possible without the usual indeterminate postponements (or do the lawyers encourage this to boost their ‘daily appearance’ fees?)
4- Call for only a certain number of cases each day instead of inconveniencing so many folk (many of them having to make the trip to Colombo from the outstations) by scheduling what is obviously an impossible number of cases to be heard each day.

I’m sure there are many other ways to ease congestion of the courtrooms around the country and inconvenience a lot less folk in the process, so what is the problem here? Or does anybody really give a shit????

Anyway, we have to make the journey again tomorrow and hope like hell for the best!

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