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Opinion


The things we consume are poisonous


We proposed to the government to set up the administration through the Ministry of Justice and other relevant authorities in order to establish a separate consumer court like the Tax Courts and Commercial Courts. If the government takes action to set up a separate court in Colombo to hear all the consumer cases in one place it would save money and would be very convenient for the consumers and the traders

It is commonly held that traders are ‘enemies’. They are often referred to as “Kalu kadakarayas”. We are trying try to develop a new culture. Since traders are also a part and parcel of our society we are making an effort to guide and educate them based on the CAA Act, the government policy and the free economy. Our mandate is very difficult as consumers have lot of confidence in us and consequently entertain a lot of expectations.

The CAA prosecutes in various courts. For example, last Monday we prosecuted on behalf of 82 complainants at the Maligakanda Magistrate Court.

The Nation interviewed the Chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), Sarath Wijesinghe. The Chairman spoke of the CAA’s functions, its plans and the balancing act performed by the CAA. Here are excerpts of the interview:
By Ayesha Wijeratne
Q. What is the CAA and what are its key objectives?
AThe Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) is a government organization established in Sri Lanka under the Consumer Affairs Authority Act (CAA Act), No. 9 of 2003, with the intention of protecting the rights of the consumers and promoting healthy competition among traders. In addition, the CAA is also involved in regulating prices and the standards of goods and services for the betterment of the consumers. The CAA, from time to time, issues directions to manufacturers or traders in respect of price marking, packeting and labelling of goods. Even though the common public perception is that the CAA is set up to protect only the consumers, the truth is that the CAA is expected to look into the interests of the traders, manufacturers and the industrialists as well. It is commonly held that traders are ‘enemies’. They are often referred to as “Kalu kadakarayas”. We are trying try to develop a new culture. Since traders are also a part and parcel of our society we are making an effort to guide and educate them based on the CAA Act, the government policy and the free economy. Our mandate is very difficult as consumers have lot of confidence in us and consequently entertain a lot of expectations. The basic objective is to protect consumers from hazardous, poisonous and inconsumable items and services while protecting them from unfair trade practices and ensuring reasonably adequate access. We are also expected to encourage competition. Unfortunately, the provision for this has been taken from the previous Acts. We proposed that a new act with new procedures be formulated. It is our job to keep consumers informed of the quality and the quantity of goods, carry out investigations, promote competitive trade, undertake public and private sector efficiency studies, promote consumer education, promote assistance to and encourage the establishment of consumer associations all over the country. They can be established anywhere, for example, in schools, temples and churches.
Q. How effective has the CAA been in prosecuting traders?
A The CAA has the regulatory powers to prosecute traders who ignore the directive to label items and to compel traders to comply with rules such as issuing receipts, maintaining standards and having price tags. The CAA prosecutes in various courts. For example, last Monday we prosecuted on behalf of 82 complainants at the Maligakanda Magistrate Court.
Q.What made you propose the establishment of Consumer Courts ?
A Generally, in our country consumers who become the victims of malpractice do not prosecute in courts. The CAA is expected to prosecute on their behalf. What we want is people’s power in prosecuting, like in India. There is Public Interest Litigation in India where people have the power to prosecute with the assistance of consumer associations. India also has consumer courts and mobile courts. The mechanism we try to carry out in our country cannot be done by a single organization. It would be more effective if the CAA acts as a catalyst and a promoter and gets the others to work. The most powerful countries in the world like USA, Japan. Australia, UK and even India and China, are very active in consumer affairs unlike us. The mechanism we target to establish is consumer associations all over the country. We want the consumers to litigate without going through the CAA.
Q. Could you tell us about the progress of the CAA in the year 2006?
A The CAA has been very active and successful in implementing consumer awareness programmes compared with other organizations in Sri Lanka. We are conducting meetings and discussions in other media to educate both consumers and traders. We dealt with consumer complaints, which was a very difficult area to handle. However, we managed to assist the consumers successfully. We personally supervise the traders in Pettah during the festive season, especially the wholesale traders. We go to public gatherings like “Mahapola” to enlighten the consumers. The CAA participated in the Law Week organized by the Bar Association to educate the consumers.
Q. What are your plans for the year 2007?
A It is our duty to provide the consumers with healthy food. We are the promoters and catalysts in the promotion of hygienic products in Sri Lanka. We encourage and promote local traders and industrialists to break the parameters with the help of the government. It is the government’s responsibility to bring down the cost of living, although the people expect us to do it. We do have a role to play in trimming the cost of living. We import 70 000 million metric tons of wheat flour which is not nourishing and furthermore brings a lot of diseases while rice based products are abandoned. The consumers are welcome to come up with their problems over the phone or by visiting the CAA. We keep a data base. We plan to start consumer organization all over the country. We are ready to have a discussion with the business community, traders and super markets. When we look around it is very sad to notice that the things we consume are poisonous. A lot of food is being sold even after the expiry date. We are now planning to register even the pavement sellers and we have planned to register all the businesses.
Q. What are the administrative requirements to set up Consumer Courts?
A We proposed to the government to set up the administration through the Ministry of Justice and other relevant authorities in order to establish a separate consumer court like the Tax Courts and Commercial Courts. If the government takes action to set up a separate court in Colombo to hear all the consumer cases in one place it would save money and would be very convenient for the consumers and the traders. At present the Legal Aid Commission is doing a good job and they have different sections for consumer affairs. The help of NGOs is also essential in the process. We proposed that mediation centers be set up to mediate and to assist people to articulate their problems and have them resolved.
Q. Does the Consumer Affairs Authority Act have provisions for the setting up of courts?
A The present Act does not have provisions to establish Consumer Courts, so we are trying to have the necessary administrative set up with the help of the Ministry of Justice. We will do it with the available raw materials and will twist it here and there. The Act will be strengthened. We concentrate mainly on the health factor and the quality of foods and regulation of prices. We are targeting the import and wholesale markets, pavements, producers, manufacturers and other sellers. We urge the people to be more aware of their rights, to educate themselves and use their power for their own protection. We are ready to help.

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Remembering Justice Siva Selliah

The breakdown of role models was one of the major root causes of the unprecedented events that we experienced in the late 1980s, said Professor G. L. Peiris, speaking at the 10th death anniversary of Justice Sivanathan Selliah, last Tuesday.
The occasion was organized by the family of late Justice Selliah at the Trans-Asia hotel. Justice Selliah was, according to Professor Peiris, a real role model, whom we can ask our younger generation to follow.
Professor Peiris was appointed the head of a presidential council by former President R. Premedasa, after the country’s second uprising of the youth in less than two decades and the lack of proper role-models was one of the major issues that came to the fore as problem faced by many educationalists.
“This is the reason why I immediately agreed to speak on this occasion, for Justice Selliah was a real role model”, added the former Minister of Justice.
Siva Selliah was born in 1924 and studied at Royal College Colombo where he excelled in studies.
He first obtained a degree in Classics before he chose the field of Law he was destined to pursue. Never interested in the difficult life of a lawyer Justice Selliah started his career as a Magistrate. He was always a highly respected member of the judiciary until he retired in 1987, only after he had climbed to the top of the ladder by becoming Justice Siva Selliah.
Professor Peiris further recalled how he worked together with Justice Selliah when the latter joined the governing council of the University of Colombo. Professor Peiris had been the Vice Chancellor of the University at that time.
“Justice Siva Selliah was the par excellence visionary” said Professor Peiris referring to the outlook of Justice Selliah when it came to matters of Law. Justice Selliah was one of the few who did not believe that it is the duty of the Judge to put everything right in the world. He was always aware of the frontiers of his profession. This had been evident in many facets of his life.
It is under his advice that Professor Peiris had initiated a series of actions aimed at promoting the living standards of judges. Justice Selliah had also been instrumental in initiating many projects to help students in his capacity as a member of the governing council of the university.
There are many other aspects in his life which qualified him as a role model. He had been a great friend who had always remembered to keep in contact with those who were close to him through out life. This had helped him to settle in to the different rhythm of retired life, a fact most individuals find hard to cope with.
Apart from G. L. Peiris, Dr. Tony Gabriel, a childhood friend of Justice Selliah, also spoke at the occasion, sharing the rich memories he has of Justice Selliah.
Mr. Mohan Peiris started the proceedings with a brief opening remark and Dr. Kumar Selliah, the son of Justice Selliah, gave the vote of thanks. The occasion was attended by many distinguished members of the judiciary.

***

A serious miscarriage of justice

By Dharmapala Senaratne
A deputation of the Judicial Officers’ Association recently met the President and reportedly requested him to re-implement the death penalty which has been suspended since 1976. There was also recently a TV program on this subject in which some intellectuals participated.
This clamour comes to surface now and then, particularly at times of sensational murder trials. The clamour is the manifestation of a nation’s fury over brutalities we occasionally hear of. But our leaders like D. S., S. W. R. D., JRJ and Premadasa were clearly not in favour of the death penalty.
This has been a subject of solemn discussion among criminologists, jurists, sociologists, psychologists, etc, all over the world over a long period of time. But it has not been possible to reach unanimity. Thus, there are two schools of thought on the matter, advocates and abolitionists.
The system of administration of justice has been designed to ensure, or at least attempts to ensure, that no innocent person is convicted of an offence which he has not committed. For, to punish a person for what he has not done simply shocks one’s conscience. In the process, many wrong-doers go scot-free. This is the perennial enigma any judicial system is faced with.
Capital punishment has been done away with in all European countries but not so in the USA.
In Sri Lanka, not many instances of innocent persons being convicted are reported purely due to a paucity of research. But, in the UK and in the USA, numerous such cases have been reported where innocent people were convicted, even of capital offences. Understandably, such revelations deeply stir the human conscience.
One of the latest such instances in the USA is vividly described in the most illuminating manner in the well-documented book ‘The Innocent Man’ by John Grisham, published last October. Although the minutia described in the book may sound as fantastic as a fairy tale, yet they are true and factual.
It is the story of Ron Williamson who spent 12 long years on Oklahoma’s death row after having been convicted of a murder he did not commit. The co-accused Dennis Fritz was also wrongfully convicted of murder but sentenced to life in prison.
In the city of Ada, Oklahoma, Debra Sue Carter, a girl of just 21 years, was found killed in 1982 after brutal sexual molestation. But for five long years, the police could not solve the crime.
Williamson was a promising athlete in baseball and was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the Major League Draft. So, he said goodbye to his hometown Ada and left to pursue his dreams of big league glory.
But 6 years later, he was back with his dreams broken by a bad arm and bad habits – drinking, drugs and small-time crime and further burdened by mental illness. After 7 years of investigations, he was arrested and charged for the murder of Debra. Then, before long, he found himself convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Twelve long years thereafter, lawyers from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Assistance met him and rescued him just five days before he was scheduled to be executed and managed to secure a re-trial. During the course of investigation and preparation for the second trial, Williamson underwent DNA examinations together with his co-accused Dennis Fritz.
It was thus positively established that the duo were not guilty of the crime of which they were convicted. Author Grisham remarks ‘even if you support the death penalty, you cannot support the death penalty system as it stands in the US. My one hope is that people realize this system we have is simply too unfair to continue’.
Many reviews of ‘The Innocent Man’ have appeared in various journals and newspapers in the United States and elsewhere. Anyone interested can read them on the Internet.
One reviewer observed. ‘If you believe that in America, you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you’.
A short time after being acquitted and discharged, Williamson died at the age of 51. It is possible that this prolonged trauma hastened his death.
Nobody knows how many people are similarly judicially killed with the concurrence of the state. The dead do not tell stories.
The argument is often heard that capital punishment is still meted out to offenders in China and in the Middle Eastern countries and that the crime rate is minimal due to the stringent system of punishment. Well. There is a point in that argument.
The writer is an Attorney at Law

***

Message from the Law & Society Trust

The Law & Society Trust in Colombo expresses its deepest sympathies and condolences to the family of the late Dr Nissanka Wijeyeratne, who was at the time of passing, Chairman of our Board of Directors.
When the Law & Society Trust was formed in 1982 it was Dr Nissanka Wijeyeratne, then Minister of Justice, who agreed at Dr Nee1an Tiruchelvam’s invitation to be Sector Head of the Trust and subsequently its first Chair.
He brought to that office his distinguished record in civil service and government and personal qualities of erudition, dignity, wit and good humour.
In the aftermath of Dr Tiruchelvam’s tragic death, it was Dr Wijeyeratne’s constant encouragement and regular visits to Kynsey Terrace that spurred us to continue in our work.
He supported us more directly too, on one occasion trekking to Hambantota to share his experiences in public administration with an enthralled group of Grama Niladaris.
Dr Wijeyeratne never failed to make the journey from his home in the Hantane Hills for meetings of the Board nor to spend time with us when in Colombo, shaming us with his wide learning and knowledge of current events at home and abroad, challenging us with an endless supply of ideas and proposals, and regaling us with anecdotes from his life as Government Agent in Anuradhapura, Cabinet Minister in JR Jayewardene’s government and Ambassador to Russia.
He will be deeply missed.

***

New JSA office bearers

Kandy District Judge Mr. Nissanka Bandula Karunarathna was unanimously elected as the new Secretary of the Magistrates and District Judges Association at their annual general meeting recently.
Last year’s President, Colombo Chief Magistrate Mrs. Sarojini Kusala Weerawardena and the Treasurer Mr. Pradeep Jayatilaka (District Judge Hatton) will continue for another period in the same capacities.
Mr. Mohan Burhan (District Judge Moratuwa) and Mr. Sisira Ratnayaka (Additional District Judge, Colombo) were elected as the new Vice Presidents of the association.
Mt. Lavinia Magistrate Mrs. Ayeshani Jayasena will serve as the Assistant Secretary and Nawalapitiya District Judge and Magistrate Miss Amah Ranaweera is the Editor of the Association.
A twenty five member executive committee was elected to represent all judicial zones of Sri Lanka.

***

Justice O.S.M Seneviratne is no more

Former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice O. S. M Seneviratne died last week.
He had his secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo, before entering the University of Ceylon.
He was called to the Bar in 1949 after serving in the chambers of N. E Weerasooriya, Q,C. After practicing for a few years he joined the judiciary, which he did not leave until his retirement. He was a career judge who served in almost all parts of the country. In addition to his knowledge of the law, he was also know to be a skilled administrator and took a keen interest to mitigate laws delays. He was appointed President of the Court of Appeal in 1980 and ascended to the Supreme Court in 1986 after the retirement of Justice Abdul Cader.