Delivering justice the graceful way

Grace was in all steps, heaven in her eye
In every gesture dignity and love…
(Milton- Paradise Lost)

Grace, dignity and compassion characterise the mettle of a woman whose footsteps are to steer many daring to take the path akin. Shanthi Eva Wanasundera entered the annals of legal history in the country as the first female Additional Solicitor General. She was conferred silk recently. The Nation takes a closer look at this lady who seeks ‘nothing but justice.’

By Randima Attygalle
Q: Was the legal profession your ‘dream career’ or was it merely by accident that you got into it?
It was definitely by accident that I got into Law College! As a school girl I never had any fixed ideas as to what my future career was going to be. I was the only girl among 40 boys, in the mathematics stream of Dharmapala College, Pannipitiya. In 1971, when I was in my A/L class, I went to the US (Arizona) on American Field Scholarship. (AFS). In 1972 I returned to school and sat for my A/L exam, the results of which were not quite satisfactory to enter the university to pursue mathematics again. Law had never crossed my mind when my father suggested that I sit for the Law Entrance exam. I was quite thrilled to have passed such a competitive exam and took my first step towards a career I never dreamt of. (Laughs)

Q: How would you like to identify yourself as a law student?
(Smiling) I must say I was an average student who was happy and carefree. I enjoyed the company of other students and was quite popular among them as a ‘live wire’! Just like any other student, I considered exams to be quite a bore and always secured just enough marks to pass each exam! I was involved in debating and oratory, but I was not a brilliant academic as such. I feel that Law College days marked a beautiful era in my life.

Q: What are your unforgettable memories as a young lawyer?
Having apprenticed in the chambers of Mr. A.B.W. Jayasekera, I took oaths as an Attorney-at-Law in 1977. Before I joined the Attorney General’s Department in 1979 as the first lady State Counsel to serve the Civil section of the Department I was attached to the ‘Private Bar.’ As a young female State Counsel in court, my memories are not so sweet. Unlike today where the females have outnumbered the males in the legal profession, at the time we joined the Bar, it was largely dominated by males. There were very few female judges as well. As a new comer to the profession, I was pitted against so many renowned Counsels. In general, they used to look at us female lawyers as a species trying to do something they are nor capable of. The moment you get up to address the court, everyone’s attention is focused on you merely to find your lapses. One bitter memory etched in my mind is how I was ridiculed by a newly appointed President’s Counsel of the unofficial Bar. I was cross examining his witness and he was losing some strong evidence in his favour. He suddenly got up and asked his witness not to look at me but to look at the judge and answer the questions and as an afterthought he added, “the lady is not attractive either,” which was an irrelevant and a hurtful remark. I was furious and replied that the newly appointed President’s Counsel did not know what ethics are and requested the judge to adjourn court. The judge who was a male himself did not want to give into such a ‘raw’ lady state counsel and would have probably discarded it as a petty matter.

Q: As a woman who has many accolades to her credit today, how do you feel to be on par with any male in the profession?
When you join the Attorney General’s Department, you get the status of a State Counsel which rises up to all other higher posts. We were always taught by our seniors that as a State Counsel our duty is not to fight and win a case but to do justice, to help the judge to achieve nothing but justice. If you conduct yourself with that in mind, and argue the case, I don’t think you need to fear anybody. That feeling had brought me up to this stage in my career. I believe that if you educate yourself and cultivate correct values to do the right thing, you can prove yourself, which I myself did. I am proud of myself no doubt but that pride is coupled with a lot of humility I must say.

Q: You epitomize the mettle of many women in this country, from a legal and a general perspective. In what way do you think your achievements reflect positively in them?
I believe that psychologically, women are stronger than men. They are capable of playing many roles in their lives. The roles of a wife, mother and career woman can be balanced by them giving that ‘special touch’ which only a woman is capable of giving. Of course the energy required to play all these roles equally well is quite a lot. I have done it myself and I know there are countless women capable of the same. From a career point of view, I think now the path is paved for many females aspiring to reach higher goals in the legal profession. In this regard, we must not forget Ms. Maureen Seneviratne, Sri Lanka’s first lady President’s Counsel who set an example for all of us proving what women are capable of. When I was conferred silk recently, I got compliments from her more than from anybody else! I told all young ladies in the profession who wished me good luck that their days are not so far. I often tell aspiring young female lawyers that a man may use his talent in the courtroom but he can never use the grace of a woman, the grace which will take you a long way. Things have changed a lot today and the present generation’s outlook is very positive and liberal. Men and women rub shoulders together and unlike in our times lot of young men have shed gender differences today which is a good omen. Even our statistics reveal that the percentage of female recruits to the Attorney General’s Department is more than the male percentage.

Q: Law is something devoid of emotion. What are your comments about this?
(smiling) When we work according to the provisions of law, we cannot get emotionally carried away. Law provides for justice and it’s very rarely we find a provision which may not morally sound just. From a layman’s point of view certain laws may appear to be ‘inhuman’ but everybody is expected to know what the law is as the well known saying says ‘ignorance of law is not an excuse’. Lot of people assume that lawyers are a species who cannot relate to emotions. I myself have experienced such situations. When my husband who was interested in me found out that I was a lawyer, he almost gave up hope thinking that he’d have to live with a wife who has no time for family life. (laughs) But he and everybody else known to me are aware as to what a sensitive and caring woman I am.

Q: Do you think that law in books is different to law in reality in Sri Lanka?
Yes, it is not easy to enforce law in a country which lacks discipline. Especially with the socio-economic decline, law enforcement has become a Herculean task. Although we have effective laws in legislative enactments, it is not easy to carry it out practically. Eviction cases are classic examples in this regard. The fiscal who is appointed to carry out the order of the judge is often harassed and it is not easy to execute a writ.

Q: Can you tell us about your family?
I met my husband Indrajith Wanasundera when I was attached to the ‘Private Bar’ practicing in Mount Lavinia District Court and Gandodawila Magistrate’s Court. We got married in 1980. I do not hail from a legal family background but my husband does, although he is not a lawyer by profession. My son Subodha is an engineer and is currently residing in Australia and my daughter Medhani is studying medicine in China.

Q: What are your interests in life?
I meditate quite a lot and I am a regular blood donator. Meditation helps me carry out my daily work peacefully and methodically. It cools a person down and makes one look at life from a different angle.

Q: If you had not become a lawyer, what would you have become?
Definitely a teacher. I love children and teaching would have enabled me to mingle with so many of them. I think imparting your knowledge is a blessing and teaching is a profession which gives lot of self satisfaction. I may also have considered becoming a social worker.

Q: What is your dictum in life which has brought you a long way?
I have always taken things in life as they came my way. I never clamoured for any status, it just came my way. I’m not at all over ambitious but I believe in honest and hard work. If you are committed to whatever the profession you are engaged in, you will one day be rewarded. It does not happen over night. It requires lot of patience. Clamouring for higher seats and rewards only brings a person’s stature down. Harbouring revenge, cutting throats and back-biting will not take you anywhere. You must wait till your turn comes. I am a believer of justice and honesty. I think a person should not be too career-minded, because if your aspirations are too high, it can sometimes hinder the path you are to take.











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