Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is an island nation located in South Asia with a total population of 21.4 million people (2017 estimate). Its largest city and commercial capital is Colombo and the country maintains a unitary semi-presidential form of government. [1] Sri Lanka is a common law country, which means that, in addition to legislation, the law is interpreted and created through the decisions by judges (stare decisis and ratio decidendi). The legal framework is a mixture of legal systems of Kandian law, Roman-Dutch law, English law, Thessavalamai and Muslim law.

The most authoritative decisions are those issued by the Supreme Court, followed in order of hierarchy by the Court of Appeals, High Court, District Courts, Magistrate’s Courts and Primary Courts. The Magistrate’s Court or the High Court is the only court with primary jurisdiction with cases involving criminal law and the respective legal domains of each are stated in the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The principal sources regulating Sri Lankan criminal law are the following: The Sri Lankan Constitution; The Sri Lankan Criminal Procedure Code; The Sri Lankan Evidence Ordinance; The Sri Lankan Penal Code; and The Sri Lankan Judicature Acts.

In the High Court, the State of Sri Lanka through the Department of Attorney-General conducts criminal trials. Generally, murder and trials against the State are heard in the High Court and other criminal offenses are tried in the Magistrate’s Court. The cases in the Magistrate’s Court will be heard and determined by a single magistrate while cases in the High Court will be adjudicated by a judge or jury.

The Court of Appeal has the task of hearing appeals against the judgment of the lower courts. The appeal will be heard usually by a bench of three judges. The Supreme Court is situated in Colombo and is the final appeal of any case and will be heard usually before a bench of three justices.

A total of 20,598 people are incarcerated in the country's 61 institutions with pre-trial detainees and remand prisoners making up 53.47 percent of the total prison population.[2] Many of these prisoners suffer the daily realities of chronic overcrowding with a lack of clean water, sanitation, and basic medical care. The poor management of the prison system greatly adds to the distress of inmates in clear violation of their human rights.[3] The Government Task Force on prison overcrowding, established in September 2016, has yet to have any real impact on the ground with an increasing prison population and an occupancy rate in excess of 190 percent. Whilst some improvements have been made the practice of abuse, torture, and beatings, especially targeting political prisoners continues in direct contravention of international humanitarian law. Due to its complex colonial history, Sri Lanka operates a hybrid legal framework with criminal law drawing on English law and common law based on the Roman-Dutch system.[4]

International Treaty Obligations and Persuasive Global Legal Standards

Sri Lanka has signed, ratified, or acceded to a number of seminal international treaties. Practitioners are encouraged to argue for judicial interpretations of Sri Lanka national law consistent with the international obligations in these treaties. These treaties and the corresponding dates of their signature, ratification, or accession by Sri Lanka are set forth below:

A. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Acceded to on 3 January 1994);

B. Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Acceded to on 5 December 2017);

C. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Acceded to on 11 June 1980);

D. International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Signed 10 December 2015, Ratified on 25 May 2016) with acceptance of individual complaints procedures;

E. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Signed on 17 July 1980, Ratified on 5 October 1981) with acceptance of individual complaints procedures;

F. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Signed on 26 January 1990, Acceded to on 12 July 1991); and

G. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Signed 30 March 2007, Acceded to on 8 February 2016).

Transitional Justice

[A] Introduction

Transitional justice refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response. In broad terms, transitional justice aims to provide truth, accountability, reparation and justice.

Sri Lanka was embroiled in a 26-year civil war that ended in May 2009 and the effects of human rights abuses, enforced disappearances and lack of accountability and government transparency continues long after the end of the war. Following the Presidential elections in 2015, the government has made commitments towards transitional justice.

[B] Adoption of International Treaties into Domestic Law

The political scenario in Sri Lanka was greatly impacted by the January 2015 Presidential and Parliamentary elections as the new government became open to democratic development. The Sri Lanka government adopted directives recommended by the Human Rights Commission in June 2016 to protect detainees from abuses, particularly at the time of arrest and ensuing detention, including medical and legal assistance, registration of arrest etc.

In March 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed Sri Lanka’s performance under the latest resolution (2015) and extended time for full implementation of the commitments made by Sri Lanka. In May 2017, the cabinet approved a draft Counter Terrorism Act intended to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); however, it has failed to move forward on the new law. In March 2018, the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance Act (No. 5 of 2018) came into force.

Although Sri Lanka is a party to many international human rights treaties, it has been criticized of not giving full effect to a number of legal responsibilities as set out in these treaties. As indicated however, the Sri Lankan government has indicated its commitment to transitional justice and compliance with its international treaty obligations.

[C] The Attorney-General Department

The Attorney-General Department has used its discretion for political ends, subverting justice and enabling impunity. The department has withdrawn indictments against State officials and politicians notwithstanding evidence supporting a conviction.

The department has often been viewed as insensitive to cases of rape, children and torture. Moreover, there is a need for training in these areas. The Attorney-General has also developed a series of questionable practices: filing identical indictments against the same accused simultaneously in multiple jurisdictions; refusing to consent to bail under emergency laws where pre-trial release should otherwise be granted; obstructing victims’ access to Magistrate reports into habeas corpus hearings to a jurisdiction where petitioners or victims cannot attend hearings; and failing to appeal acquittals in torture cases where there are clear grounds for such an appeal.

As a result of these practices, victims are denied their right to a fair trial. The Attorney-General needs to be independent and perform its duties fairly, consistently and expeditiously, respecting and protecting human dignity and human rights, thus contributing to ensuring due process and the smooth functioning of the criminal justice system.

[D] Constitutional and Institutional Reform

The constitutional reform process was initiated in 2016 and several new laws have been adopted. The Right to Information Act, and four important institutions were established: The Office of Missing Persons (OMP), Office for Reparations (OR), Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence (CTJRNR) and Judicial Mechanism (JM). The OMP was established in March 2018, the OR draft bill is pending in Parliament, although progress has come to a standstill with the CTJRNR and JM.

[E] Delayed Justice

Time limits must be placed on criminal cases to negate delays, abuse of power and to afford victims access to justice in a timely manner. Certain cases are heard only once a year because the courts do not have the capacity to accommodate them twice. Cases are delayed due to judges and prosecutors being absent. Cases are postponed because there is no mechanism in place (such as a provision in the Judicial Services Commission) to hear cases by another judge in the absence of the one who normally heard the case. A reported shortage of courthouses resulted in numerous criminal cases being transferred to Colombo, and often, due to the large number of cases, it is impossible to have them heard in a timely manner.

[F] Criminal Accountability

Criminal accountability for the atrocities committed during the 26-year Civil War is an important element of transitional justice. In 2010, President Rajapaksa set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which was mandated to investigate events that took place between 2002 and 2009. This commission received international criticism for its limited mandate and its perceived bias.

The Sri Lankan government has failed to establish a special court to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators. The government in 2017 asserted that there would be no international participation in prosecutions and that no war heroes (military personnel who fought the LTTE) will be touched.

[G] Diverse Justice System

Sri Lankan society is predominately Sinhalese, with significant Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sinhala and Tamil are both official languages, however, the diversity of the population is not reflected in the current justice system with the majority of judicial staff Sinhalese. Tamil speaking litigants often have difficulties navigating the justice system due to a lack of interpreters and court officials who speak Tamil. In addition, women in the legal profession are under-represented in higher-appointed judicial positions.

[H] Administrative Inefficiency

Staff shortages have resulted in unnecessary delays in criminal cases. Additionally, administrative staff must be properly educated and trained to properly execute their duties. Adequate and qualified staffing is necessary to ensure that cases move through the system without delay and efficiently.

[I] Judiciary

The role of the Judiciary in a democratic society provides a check and balance on the political branches of government. The current Sri Lankan Constitution fails to contain specific provisions for judicial independence or a separation of powers. According to a UN Report completed in March 2017 by the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers in Sri Lanka, there are credible concerns relating to the independence, impartiality and competence of the judiciary. Judges of the Superior Court can be removed from office by a decision of the President after an impeachment procedure before Parliament. The Executive has the power to arbitrarily remove a judge, which raises concerns on the level of control of the Executive over the Judiciary.

The Constitutional Council conducts the appointment and selection of superior court judges. The Constitutional Council is a ten member constitutional authority tasked with maintaining independent commissions and monitoring affairs. The role of the Constitutional Council is meant to mitigate the President’s influence over the judiciary; however, the majority of the Council’s members are politicians. The procedure for appointment to the Judiciary by the Council continues to be unknown. The International Bar Association in 2009, cited the lack of independent oversight and practice of executive presidential discretion over judicial appointments makes the judiciary vulnerable to executive interference and jeopardizes its independence.

The Judicial Service Commission establishes the process in which judges to the lower judiciary are appointed, transferred, removed and disciplined. Members of the Commission lack political autonomy as the President appoints them and therefore the recruitment of judges is likely influenced by political affiliations. Moreover, the nomination of judges should be based on their competence, not political affiliation. According to the Special Rapporteur Report in 2017, in the past there have been instances when judicial appointments did not follow the established procedure.

The procedure for promoting judges remains relatively vague. There is concern that promotions are used as a tool to ensure political conformity on contentious issues such as human rights abuses and torture. Judges are often offered government or political offices following retirement.


In Sri Lanka, juvenile justice issues are primarily considered in terms of The Children and Young Persons Ordinance (1939) (CYPO). The CYPO defines a “child” as a person under the age of 14 and a “young person” as a person between 14 and 16 years.

According to the Penal Code, a person is considered unable to commit an offence under the age of 8 (Penal Code, Section 75). Similarly anything done by a child above 8 years of age and under 12 years is not an offence, if such child has not attained sufficient maturity to judge the nature and consequences of his conduct on the particular occasion (Penal Code, Section 76).

Juvenile Jurisdiction

The CYPO establishes juvenile courts, or children’s courts, as forums of summary hearing with the jurisdiction to hear any charge against a child or young person (CYPO, Section 2). The CYPO also provides for the appointment of children’s magistrates to hear such cases in Sri Lankan magistrate’s and municipal courts (CYPO, Sections 3(1) and 3(2)). The courts have extensive jurisdiction covering all cases of children in need of care and protection and any criminal charges against children other than scheduled offences such as murder, culpable homicide, attempted murder and robbery.

A Municipal Court sitting as a Juvenile Court shall have jurisdiction for offences committed under the Municipal Councils Ordinance (CYPO, Section 4(2)). The Magistrates Court sitting as a Juvenile Court shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any case in which a child or young person is charged with any offence other than a scheduled offence (CYPO, Section 4(1)).

Where a child or young person is brought before a Juvenile Court for any offence which that court has jurisdiction to hear and determine, it shall be the duty of the court as soon as possible to explain to him in simple language the substance of the alleged offence (Child Act, Section 9(1)).

The Juvenile Court shall have jurisdiction over any offence other than an indictable offence (CYPO, Section 4(1)). The court shall, in the case of indictable offences and if it is of opinion that it is expedient that the case should be summarily disposed of, put to the young person the following or a similar question:

“Do you wish to be tried by this court or by a higher court?”

It is important that the court, together with the above question, explain to the accused child that he/she may consult his parents or guardian or a friend before replying. It is also incumbent upon the presiding officer to explain to the child accused the effect of the matter being so tried and if the matter proceeds in the Juvenile Court and the presiding officer at any stage during the proceedings determines that the matte ought to be heard by a higher court, he/she shall direct that the matter proceed in such a higher court (CYPO, Section 9 (4)(b)(i)).

If the young person or child wishes to be tried by a higher court, the charge should be preferred in a Magistrate’s Court of competent jurisdiction.

Juvenile Detention

The CYPO requires that children and young offenders be detained separately from adults in police stations and courts and juvenile girls shall while detained, being conveyed or waiting, be under the care of a woman (CYPO, Section 13). Sections 14(1), 14(2) and 14(3) of the CYPO provides for bail and/or detention of children and young persons arrested.

Section 122A of the Penal Code makes provision for a medical examination in case of an offence alleged to have been committed by a child of, or above twelve years of age and under fourteen and is as follows:

(1)The officer in charge of the police station who is investigating an offence alleged to have been committed by a child of, or above, twelve years of age and under fourteen years, shall, with the consent of the parent or guardian of such child, cause the child to be examined by a multidisciplinary team comprising of the experts specified in subsection in order to obtain a report whether such child has attained sufficient maturity of understanding which enables the Magistrate having jurisdiction in the case to decide—

(a) The degree of responsibility of such child, taking into consideration the nature and consequences of the alleged offence; and

(b) Whether the child is in need of any therapeutic intervention.

(2) The multidisciplinary team referred to in subsection (1) shall comprise of—

(a) The judicial medical officer of the relevant district;

(b) A pediatric or adolescent psychiatrist; and

(c) A psychologist.

(3) Where such parent or guardian of the child does not consent to the child being so examined, the officer in charge of the police station shall apply to the Magistrate having jurisdiction in the case, for an order authorising such multidisciplinary team to examine such child.

(4) In any event where the judicial medical officer of the relevant district is not available, the officer in charge of the police station who is investigating the offence shall obtain the assistance of a judicial medical officer of any other district to obtain the report referred to in subsection (1).

(5) Such multidisciplinary team shall submit its report to the officer in charge of the police station who shall submit such report to the Magistrate, in order to assist him to form his opinion as referred to in subsection (1) and to make his decision, taking into consideration the provisions of section 76 of the Penal Code.

(6) The child referred to in subsection (1) shall be subject to rehabilitation in the prescribed manner under the supervision and assessment of a paediatric psychiatrist and a psychologist.

Court Procedures for Juveniles

In every case tried by a Juvenile Court, the court shall adopt the following procedure as outlined in section 9(5) of the Child Act:

(a) The court shall ask the child or young person whether he admits that he committed the offence;

(b) If the child or young person does not admit that he committed the offence, the court shall then hear the evidence of the witnesses in support of the charge;

(c) At the close of the evidence-in-chief of each such witness, the court shall ask the child or young person, or if it thinks fit the parent or guardian of the child or young person, whether he wishes to put any question to the prosecution’s witnesses;

(d) The child or young person, or the parent or guardian may, if it is so desired, put any questions accordingly;

(e) The child or young person may, instead of asking any questions, make a statement, if he so desires;

(f) It shall be the duty of the court to put to every witness who gives evidence in support of the charge such questions as appear to the court to necessary;

(g) The court may put to the child or young person such questions as may be necessary to explain anything in any statement made by the child or young person;

(h) If it appears to the court that a prima facie case is made out, the evidence of any witness for the defense shall be taken and the child or young person shall be allowed to give evidence or to make any statement;

(i) If the child or young person admits that he committed the offence or if the court is satisfied on the evidence adduced that the child or young person committed the offence, he shall be asked if he desires to say anything in extenuation of the offence or in mitigation of punishment or otherwise.

Sentencing Juveniles

According to the CYPO, if the child or young person is found guilty of an offence, he/she may be punished in the following manner:

• Committed to custody in a remand home for a period not exceeding one month (Section 25(1));

• Child of 12 years of a young person may be sent to an approved or certified school (Section 26(1));

• Handover to parents or guardians for custody on condition of keeping good behavior for one year (Section 27(1));

• Place him in charge of some fit person for three years (Section 27(1));

• Conditionally release him (Section 27(1));

• Fine him (Section 28(1));

• Order corporal punishment (6 strokes with a light cane for males only) (Section 29(1));

• Discharge him after due admonition (Section 30).

Convicted child prisoners are usually sent to the following institutions in Sri Lanka:

• Wathpitiwela Training School for Youthful Offenders,

• Pallansena Correctional Centre for Youthful Offenders or/and

• Taldena Correctional Centre for Youthful Offenders.

Pre Trial Procedures

Police Procedures


In the first instance “complaint means the allegation made orally or in writing to a Magistrate with a view to his taking action under this Code that some person, whether known or unknown, has committed an offence" [5] In the event that the complaint forms part of court proceedings - "here shall be attached to every summons issued to an accused person a copy of the complaint or report or other document upon which proceedings against him have been instituted together with a list specifying the names and addresses of the witnesses for the prosecution, if any" [6]

Arrest, Search and Seizure Laws

The arresting officer (peace officer) under the criminal code shall "actually touch or confine the body of the person to be arrested unless there be a submission to the custody, by word or action, and shall inform the person, to be arrested, of the nature of the charge or allegation upon which he is arrested". [7] It is worth noting that under the code, a “non-cognizable offence” means an offence for which a ”non-cognizable case” means a case in which a peace officer may not arrest without warrant. In specific circumstances, peace officers may arrest without execution of an order from a Magistrate. These circumstances are:

(a) who in his presence commits any breach of the peace;

(b) who has been concerned in any cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable complaint has been made or credible information has been received or a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been so concerned;

(c) having in his possession without lawful excuse (the burden of proving which excuse shall be on such person) any implement of house-breaking;

(d) who has been proclaimed as an offender;

(e) in whose possession anything is found which may reasonably be suspected to be property stolen or fraudulently obtained and who may reasonably be suspected of having committed an offence with reference to such thing;

(f) who obstructs a peace officer while in the execution of his duty or who has escaped or attempts to escape from lawful custody;

(g) reasonably suspected of being a deserter from the Sri Lanka Army, Navy or Air Force;

(h) found taking precautions to conceal his presence under circumstances which afford reason to believe that he is taking such precautions with a view to committing a cognizable offence;

(i) who has been concerned in or against whom a reasonable complaint has been made or credible information has been received or a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been concerned in any act committed at any place out of Sri Lanka.[8]

In the case of an arrest without a warrant, the arrested person must not be detained for more than a period of twenty-four hours. Furthermore, the criminal code explicitly states that such persons must be presented before the appropriate at the earliest opportunity after arrest - "peace officer shall not detain in custody or otherwise confine a person arrested without a warrant for a longer period than under all the circumstances of the case is reasonable, and such period shall not exceed twenty-four hours exclusive of the time necessary for the journey from the place of arrest to the Magistrate" [9]

Pre-Trial Detention

In Sri Lanka, an arrested person or suspect can be detained during the period of an investigation - "every inquirer and officer in charge of a station shall have power to authorise the detention of a person during an investigation".[10] Should a longer-term detention be required, then a Magistrate in authority would need to sign off. The criminal code is specific in this event - "if he is satisfied that it is expedient to detain the suspect in custody pending further investigation, may after recoiling his reasons, by warrant addressed to the superintendent of any prison authorize the detention of the suspect for a total period of fifteen days and no more". It is also clear that after this period of time, should proceeding not be entered into against the suspect, then the court, must "either discharge the suspect or require him to execute a bond to appear if and when so required".[11] The arrested person or accused shall only be detained in a safe manner by the appointed authorities for as long as the court permits it. "The superintendent shall, upon delivery to him as aforesaid of the person named in the warrant, detain him and keep him safely in custody on behalf of the court making the detention, commitment or remand for such time as may be specified by the warrant" [12]


The carrying out of searches is permitted in a variety of situations under the criminal code. Under the code, a court issued warrant is deemed as a necessary legal instrument to enable a peace officer to carry out a search in the first instance and once this warrant has been issued by a Magistrate then - "whenever any place liable to search or closed any person residing in or being in charge of such place shall on demand of the person executing the warrant and on production of the warrant allow him free ingress thereto and afford all reasonable facilities for a search therein".[13]

In the event that a person is suspected of wrongfully confining another person, a Magistrate has the authority to issue a warrant under the law - "if any Magistrate's Court has reason to believe that any person is confined under such circumstances that the confinement amounts to an offence, it may issue a search warrant; and the person to whom such warrant is directed may search for the person so confined and such search shall be made in accordance therewith".[14]

If a search is to be carried out, then the property owner, even an accused or arrested person has the right of attendance during any search - "The occupant of the place searched or some person on his behalf shall in every instance be permitted to attend during the search".[15]

Exclusionary Rule

The first exclusionary rule under s24 of the Evidence Ordinance of Sri Lanka has a direct bearing on the criteria of liability where the object of the prohibition, under this section, is to rule out confessions which are caused by a threat, inducement or promise.[16] There is a high degree of probability that confession made in these circumstances will not be true.[17] The second and third exclusionary rule, under s25 and s26 of the Evidence Ordinance, do not depend on the actual unreliability of a confession since it is made to a police officer or made while the accused is in police custody.[18]

Protection against illegal police procedures/actions

The code provides protection to a suspect or arrested person in relation to police procedure with regard to accruing a warrant to carry out a search or to carry out an arrest by a peace officer - "any omission or error as to time and place and any defect in form in any order or warrant given under this section and any omission to comply with the provisions of paragraph (e) shall not be held to render illegal any execution carried into effect under such order or warrant or intended so to have been carried into effect, nor to render any execution illegal which would otherwise have been legal".[19]

Lineups and other identification procedures

The code provides for the holding of court ordered identification parades, for the purposes of identification of the accused alone. "Every Magistrate to whom application is made......shall assist the conduct of an investigation by making and issuing appropriate orders and processes of court, and may, in particular hold, or authorise the holding of, an identification parade for the purpose of ascertaining the identify of the offender".[20]


A police officer (peace officer) has the right to interrogate a suspect under the same Magistrate who issued a warrant for a specific period of time before any formal charge in court - "the right of any police officer to interrogate the applicant with respect to any offence specified in the application".[21] In the event a suspect is charged and released on bail, the police retain the right to request the suspect attend for further interrogation within reason - "such person shall make himself available for interrogation by a police officer, as when required, provided that such interrogation shall not under any circumstances whatsoever be between 6 p.m. in the evening and 6 a.m. in the morning".[22]

Right to Counsel

The arrested person does have the right to have legal counsel appointed in advance of their initial Court hearing and shall be considered innocent until proven otherwise.[23]

Rights of the accused at all times

Double Jeopardy

The code provides protection against an instance of double jeopardy - "No person to be tried twice for the same offence".[24]

Legality Principle

The right of equality before the law in combination with clearly defined limits of police powers - "The rule of law in this sense is expressed in the maxim, derived from the 19th century liberalism, nulla poena sine lege..."[25]

Presumption of Innocence

The code explicitly states that an accused person has the benefit of the "presumption of innocence" until proven guilty in a court of law.[26]

Standards of Proof and Standards for Conviction

The Criminal Code does not specify the quantum of proof and fails even to indicate which party to the proceedings bears the burden of proof. However the Evidence Ordinance of Sri Lanka, under section 3, defines proof and chapter 9 gives guidelines as to how the several burdens have to be discharged.

Capital Punishment

Whilst Capital Punishment is a legally enforceable sentence since its reintroduction in 2004, it is only enforceable in the case of rape, murder or drug related conviction.[27]

Ex Post Facto Punishment

The Constitution of Sri Lanka protects against any form of retroactive penal laws or penalties - "(n)o person shall be held guilty of an offence on account of any act or omission which did not, at the time of such act or omission, constitute such an offence, and no penalty shall be imposed for any offence more severe than the penalty in force at the time such offence was committed".[28]

Rights of the accused at all times (Fair Trial Rights)

Freedom from Prolonged pre-trial detention & Freedom from Punishment

Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the accused person is protected against prolonged pre-trial detention and freedom from cruel or unusual punishment - "Every person held in custody, detained or otherwise deprived of personal liberty shall be brought before the judge of the nearest competent court according to procedure established by law, and shall not be further held in custody, detained or deprived of personal liberty except upon and in terms of the order of suet. Judgement made in accordance with procedure established by law".[29] "No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".[30]

Right to Counsel

Whilst the right to access a lawyer is technically bound by the Constitution of Sri Lanka in Sections 6A (2) and (6) of Clause 2 of the Bill, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) note that the appropriate sections are "drafted in a way that is too broad with no objective criteria to determine the prejudice or effect a detainee's access to a lawyer or the lawyer's access to a police station may have on an investigation being conducted".[31]

Right to Habeas Corpus

The writ of Habeas Corpus is explicitly taken care of by the Court of Appeals - "The Court of Appeal may grant and issue orders in the nature of writs of habeas corpus to bring up before such Court".[32]

Right to Medical Care

During a period of custody, every prisoner is guaranteed the right to medical care under the Prisons Act and that responsibility to provide said care initially is with the attending officer - "The names of prisoners desiring to see the Medical Officer or appearing out of health in mind or body shall be reported by the officer attending them to the jailer; and the jailer shall without delay call the attention of the medical officer to any prisoner desiring to see him".[33]

Right to a fair trial

The right to a fair trial is guaranteed under the Constitution - "Any person charged with an offence shall be entitled to be heard, in person or by an attorney-at-law, at a fair trial by a competent court".[34]

Right to a speedy trial

There is no automatic right to a speedy trial under the law in Sri Lanka as it stands today.

Right to trial by jury

All trials currently held in Sri Lanka are held before professional judges - magistrates, and not juries.[35]

Right to impartial judge

The right to act impartiality during trial is an international obligation of Sri Lanka - "Sri Lanka, as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it bound to provide a "competent, independent and impartial tribunal [or court] established by law".[36]

Right to appeal

The right to appeal from a Magistrate’s court to the Court of Appeal is guaranteed under law.[37]

Rights of the accused at all times (Ways to protect rights)

The rights of the accused are guaranteed under the Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26. The accused has the right to call witnesses, has the right to be defended by an Attorney-at-law at trial and at any pre-trial hearings, has the right to give evidence on their own behalf, the right not have their life put in danger, if they are not accused of a crime punishable by the death sentence, and the right to appeal.

Rights in Prison

Conditions of confinement

The code specifies that all prisoners must be held in humane conditions and their basic food, clothing and bedding must be provided without the taking of a fee - "the food, clothing, and bedding issued to each prisoner or each class of prisoners shall, without prejudice to the provisions of sections, 59, 60, and 61, be in accordance with such rules as may be made in that behalf under section 94", and "No money shall be taken by any prison officer by way of garnish, fee, or gratuity from any prisoner or any person on his behalf or account, on his entrance into or discharge from or during his detention in the prison, under any pretence whatsoever".[38]

Immigrant Detention

Entry into Sri Lanka of persons other than citizens of Sri Lanka is controlled according to the provisions of Part III of the Immigrants and Emigrants Amendment Act, No. 7 of 2015. This part is related to the matters connected with approved ports of entry, documents required at the entry, requirement of visa to enter and stay in Sri Lanka, medical & other examinations upon arrival, inspection of persons & their belongings and detention & removal of certain persons from Sri Lanka.’ S20 of the above mentioned act speaks to the detention of persons for examination and inspection, where a person who is directed by an authorized officer to disembark and enter any place on shore, may be detained at any place approved in that behalf by the Minister for such length of time as may be necessary for completing such examination or inspection. S21, of the above Act, speaks the detention of certain persons. S21(1) states that the master of any ship arriving at any place in Sri Lanka shall, at the request of an authorized officer, detain on board the ship any person who has been refused an endorsement by that officer, or any person who enters Sri Lanka from that ship in contravention of the provisions of s10. S21(2) states that where a person to whom this Part applies is refused an endorsement by an authorized officer or where a person enters Sri Lanka in contravention of the provisions of section 10, he may be temporarily detained in such manner and in such place as may be specified in any general or special directions of the Minister, if such person cannot for any reason be detained on board the ship by which he traveled to Sri Lanka or that ship has left Sri Lanka.

Right to medical care in prison/mental health care

Right to medical care whilst in prison addressed in the previous section. Prison infrastructure is poor and old combined with not well-equipped consultation rooms makes it difficult to have good sanitation and it affects the health of prisoners.

Restriction of rights

The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka provides for temporary restrictions on fundamental rights if national security issues are involved.

Women's rights in prison

The criminal code details the specific rights enjoyed by female inmates in Sri Lankan prisons. There must be a least one female officer in each prison, and additionally female prisoners are to be dealt with only by female officers - "In every prison in which female prisoners are detained there shall be at least one female officer" and "provided that the persons of females shall be searched by some female prison officer" and that "males shall be separated from females" at all times also.[39]

Court Procedures


Initial Court Appearance

Should an arrestee be living in Sri Lanka, the initial court appearance before a Magistrate must occur not more than twenty-four hours after an arrest - "shall within twenty-four hours from the arrest exclusive of the time necessary for the journey be taken before the nearest Magistrate's Court......such person shall be forthwith released on his executing a bond for his appearance before a Magistrate's Court if so required".[40] Should an arrestee not have a permanent address in Sri Lanka then the arresting peace officer shall take the suspect "forthwith to the nearest Magistrate who may either require him to execute a bond with or without a surety for his appearance before a Magistrate's Court or may order him to be detained in custody until he can be tried".[41]

Charging Instrument

Once the court is ready and at the very commencement of the trial the "registrar shall in the hearing of the accused read the indictment to the jury and the Judge".[42]

Preliminary Hearing

According to s145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, ‘when the accused appears or is brought before the Magistrate’s Court, the Magistrate shall in a case, (a) where the offence or any one of them where there is more than one, falls within the list of offences set out in the Second Schedule to the Judicature Act; or (b) where the Attorney-General being of opinion that evidence recorded at a preliminary inquiry will be necessary for preparing an indictment, within three months of the date of the commission of the offence so directs, hold a preliminary inquiry according to the provisions hereinafter mentioned.’

Pre-Trial Motions

S145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 states, ‘when the accused appears or is brought before the Magistrate’s Court, the Magistrate shall in a case— where the offence or any one of them where there is more than one, falls within the list of offences set out in the Second Schedule to the Judicature Act; or where the Attorney-General being of opinion that evidence recorded at a preliminary inquiry will be necessary for preparing an indictment, within three months of the date of the commission of the offence so directs, hold a preliminary inquiry according to the provisions hereinafter mentioned.’ S146 of the same Act mentions, ‘a Magistrate conducting a preliminary inquiry shall at the commencement of such inquiry read over to the accused the charge or charges in respect of which the inquiry is being held, but upon such reading over the accused shall not be required to make any reply thereto; if any such reply is made, it shall not be recorded by the Magistrate; nor shall any such reply be admissible in evidence against the accused.’ S147 of the same Act states, ‘the officer in charge of the police station where the relevant Information Book is kept shall at the commencement of the inquiry furnish to the Magistrate three certified copies of the notes of investigation and of all statements recorded in the course of the investigation.’ v. Discovery S72 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 speaks to discovery of persons wrongfully confined. It goes on the state that ‘if any Magistrate’s Court has reason to believe that any person is confined under such circumstances that the confinement amounts to an offence, it may issue a search warrant; and the person to whom such warrant is directed may search for the person so confined and such search shall be made in accordance therewith; and the person if found shall be immediately taken before such court, which shall make such order as in the circumstances of the case seems proper.’


Nature of the Trial

S5 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 speaks to the trial of offences under the Penal Code and other laws. Chapter XIII of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, covers the area of place of inquiry or trial and highlights the place of trial, where the concerned criminal act is an offence by reason of relation to another offences (s130) and the place of inquiry or trial in various cases (S132). Chapter XVII of the above-mentioned Act deals with the trial of cases where a magistrate’s court has the power to try summarily while Chapter XVII deals with trial by the high court specifically trial by a judge without a jury (section B) and trial by jury (section C). Section D deals with the re-trial of the accused after the discharge of the jury while section F deals with the trails in the high court in the absence of the accused. Chapter XXI speaks to the general provisions as to inquiries and trials.


According to s315 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, ‘the plea of a previous acquittal or conviction may be pleaded either orally or in writing and may be in the following form or to the following effect: “the defendant says that by virtue of section 314 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act he is not liable to be tried”.’ According to s260 of the above Act, ‘subject to the provisions of this Code and any written law, every person accused before any criminal court may of right be defended by an Attorney-at-Law, and every aggrieved party shall have the right to be represented in court by an attorney-at-law.


According to s2 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 an attorney general is the attorney-general of the Republic of Sri Lanka including an acting attorney-general. S6 of the same Act goes on to speak to the powers of the attorney-general stating, ‘anything in this Code shall not be construed as derogating from or limiting the powers or jurisdiction of the … Attorney-General.

S133, of the above mentioned Act states, ‘whenever any doubt is entertained by a Magistrate as to the Magistrate’s Court by which any offence should be inquired into, such Magistrate may embody the ascertained facts in the form of a case and transmit the same to the Attorney-General for his opinion, and the Attorney-General shall thereupon decide in which court the offence shall be inquired into and such court shall thereupon have jurisdiction to inquire into such offence.

With regard to the attorney-at-law, it is defined as a ‘pleader with reference to any proceeding in court’ under s2 of the above Act. S152 speaks to the role of such attorneys stating, ‘if the accused in answer to the question states that he wishes to give evidence but not to call witnesses, the Magistrate shall proceed to take forthwith the evidence of the accused, and after the conclusion of the evidence of the accused, his Attorney-at-Law (if the accused is represented) shall be heard on his behalf, if he so desires. If the accused, in answer to the question, states that he desires to give evidence on his own behalf and to call witnesses or to call witnesses only, the Magistrate shall proceed to take either forthwith, or, if a speech is to be made by an Attorney-at-Law on behalf of the accused, after the conclusion of the speech, the evidence of the accused, if he desires to give evidence himself, and of any witness called by him who knows anything relating to the facts and circumstances of the case or anything tending to prove the innocence of the accused.

According to s158(2) of the above Act, ‘when an indictment has been forwarded against any person in respect of an offence which is not shown to be triable by a Magistrate’s Court in the eighth column of the First Schedule, the Attorney-General may, in the interests of justice, make available to the accused or to his Attorney-at-Law, for perusal the statement to the police of any witness not listed in the indictment.’ S190 of the above Act allows an accused to be discharged by a magistrate with a sanction of an attorney-general and with the fulfillment of the requirements listed under s194 of the above Act, and an attorney-general may withdraw an application. Like judges, attorney-generals and attorneys-at-law, are not allowed to serve and jurors, according to s245 of the above Act. S393-s401 of the above Act lists the requirements of the powers of the attorney-general.

According to s257 of the above Act, ‘the attorney-general at any stage after commitment but before judgment is pronounced may, with the view of obtaining on the trial the evidence of any person supposed to have been directly or indirectly concerned in or privy to any such offence, tender or authorise the Magistrate to tender a pardon on the same condition to such person.

According to s360 of the above Act, ‘the attorney-general shall appear for the State in every appeal to the Court of Appeal under this Code to which the State or a public officer is a party and all such documents, exhibits and other things connected with the proceedings as the attorney-general may require for the purpose of his duties under this section shall be transmitted to him by the Registrar of the court having custody of such documents, exhibits and things. The Solicitor-General or a State Counsel or an Attorney-at-Law specially or generally authorised by the Attorney-General in that behalf shall be entitled to appear for the State in place of the Attorney-General in any such appeal.

Expert Witnesses

According to S148 (1) of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, ‘the Magistrate shall then take, in the presence of the accused and in the manner hereinafter provided, the statements on oath or affirmation of those who know the facts and circumstances of the case, and put them in writing (called the depositions): Provided that the Magistrate shall not except where the Attorney-General otherwise directs summon and record the evidence of any expert witness but shall only cause such witness’s report to be produced and filed of record.’ According to S397(2) of the above Act, ‘the Attorney-General may if he thinks it necessary, direct the Magistrate to record the evidence of any expert witness or police officer and the Magistrate shall then comply with such directions.’


According to s2 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, a judge is defined as, ‘the presiding officer of a court and includes a Judge of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, High Court, District Court, Magistrate’s Court and Primary Court as the context may require and includes an acting Judge of such court.’ It is important to note that judges of courts established under the law in force cannot serve as jurors (s245 of the same Act).

According to s161 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, ‘subject to the provisions of this code or any other law, all prosecutions on indictment instituted in the High Court shall be tried by a Judge of that Court: Provided that in any case where at least one of the offences falls within the list of offences set out in the Second Schedule to the judicature Act, No 2 of 1978, trial shall be by a jury, before a Judge, if and only if, the accused elects to be tried by a jury.

S195 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 speaks to the duty of the judge upon the receipt of an indictment. His duties include: ‘causing the accused to appear or to be brought before him; causing a copy of the indictment with its annexes to be served on each of the accused who will be tried upon that indictment; informing the accused of the date of trial; and subject to the provisions of section 403, direct the accused to execute a bond to appear in court for his trial or by warrant addressed to the superintendent of any prison authorise the detention of the accused pending his trial; causing the accused to be finger-printed and forward the prints to the Registrar of Finger Prints for examination and report to the prosecuting State Counsel; and if the indictment relates to an offence triable by a jury, inquire from the accused whether or not he elects to be tried by a jury; where trial is to be by a jury direct the accused to elect from which of the respective panels of jurors the jury shall be taken for his trial and inform him that he shall be bound by and may be tried according to the election so made; where the accused on being asked by court so requests, assign an Attorney-at-Law for his defence.

Chapter XVIII, Part B of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 speaks to the trial by the judge of the high court, without a jury. With specific reference to s203 under such chapter and part, the judge is to pass judgment when the cases for the prosecution and defence are concluded. According to such section, ‘the Judge shall forthwith or within ten days of the conclusion of the trial record a verdict of acquittal or conviction giving his reasons therefor and if the verdict is one of conviction pass sentence on the accused according to law.

According to s207 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018 ‘if the accused pleads not guilty but states that he is willing to plead guilty to lesser offence for which he might have been convicted on that indictment and the prosecuting counsel is willing to accept such plea, the Judge may if he thinks that the interests of justice will be satisfied by so doing order such plea of guilt to be recorded and may pass judgment thereon accordingly, and thereupon the accused shall be discharged of the offence laid in the indictment and such discharge shall amount to an acquittal.’ According to s208(1) of the same Act, ‘the prosecuting counsel or the accused may apply to the High Court at the sessions where the trial is pending for an order requiring a special jury to be summoned to try any case; and the Judge before whom such application comes up, shall if he considers such application just and reasonable make an order accordingly.

S230 of the above mentioned Act, speaks to the duty of the judge at the conclusion of the trial. The judge is to: ‘decide all questions of law arising in the course of the trial and especially all questions as to the relevancy of facts which it is proposed to prove and the admissibility of evidence or the propriety of questions asked by or on behalf of the parties, and in his discretion to prevent the production of inadmissible evidence whether it is or is not objected to by the parties; decide upon the meaning and construction of all documents given in evidence at the trial; decide upon all matters of fact which it may be necessary to prove in order to enable evidence of particular matters to be given; decide whether any question which arises is for himself or for the jury.

According to s231 of the above mentioned Act, ‘the Judge may if he thinks proper in the course of his summing up express to the jury his opinion upon any question of fact or upon any question of mixed law and fact relevant to the proceeding.


S303 of the Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, No. 11 of 2018, speaks to the suspending the sentence of imprisonment by the court, in whole or part, provided reasons are stated in writing and in the appropriate circumstance, where there is a need to protect the victim or the community from the offender. S451A of the same Act, mentioned above, speaks to the warrant of granting custody of a victim to a place of safety. According to this section, ‘where it appears to a court in which indictment or charge for child abuse has been filed that the child in relation to whom the child abuse is alleged to have been committed requires care and protection, the court may order such child to be kept in a place of safety for care and protection, pending the trial. Where a court makes an order under subsection (1) that a child in relation to whom the child abuse is alleged to have been committed be kept in a place of safety for care and protection, a warrant substantially in the form set out in the Second Schedule shall be signed by the court and delivered to the Fiscal of the court.


Sentencing is at the discretion of the presiding Magistrate and shall remain detained under the order of the President of the Court - "when any person has been sentenced under section 53 of the Penal Code to be detained during the President's pleasure he shall, notwithstanding any enactment of the contrary, be liable to be detained in such place and under such conditions as the President may from time to time direct, and whilst so detained shall be deemed to be in legal custody".[43]


A defendant retains the right to appeal to either the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, depending on the nature and seriousness of the crime. The right to counsel in this instance is not guaranteed by the State.[44]


  5. Criminal Code Part 1, Chapter 1, preliminary interpretation
  6. Criminal Code Chapter V of process to compel appearance, 44. Registries of Summons, 3
  7. Criminal Code Chapter IV of Arrest, Escape, and Retaking
  8. Criminal Code, Chapter IV of Arrest, Escape, and Retaking
  9. Criminal Code, Chapter IV of Arrest, Escape, and Retaking
  10. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, 2
  11. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, 2
  12. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, 264, 2
  13. Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 26
  14. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26
  15. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26
  16. Peiris G.L. & de Soysa R.S. ‘The Admissibility of Confessions in Criminal Proceedings: A comparative analysis of the law of Sri Lanka and England’ Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 49 available at;sequence=1.
  17. Ibid, 49.
  18. Ibid, 52.
  19. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter XXIV of Sentences and the Carrying out Thereof, 286, G
  20. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26
  21. Bail Act 1997, Section 25;
  22. Bail Act 1997, Section 24
  23. s152(3) and s217 of the Code of Criminal Procedure
  24. Sri Lanka Code of Criminal Procedure Section 314
  25. Article - A Critical Analysis on the Application of the Legal Principle of Rule of Law in the Criminal Justice System of Sri Lanka - Volume 4, Issue 3 - 2017
  26. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, Trial to Close of Case for Prosecution and Defence, 217
  27. Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide;
  28. Constitution of Sri Lanka, Act. 13, 6
  29. Constitution of Sri Lanka, Chapter 3 Section 13, 2
  30. Constitution of Sri Lanka, Chapter 3 Section 11
  31. CPA Press Release on SC SD 7/2017 [Code of Criminal Procedure (Special Provisions) Act No 2 of 2013, Amendment Bill;
  32. Constitution of Sri Lanka, The Court of Appeal, 141
  33. Prisons Ordinance, Chapter 66, Prisons, Part VIII, Health of Prisoners, 66;
  34. Constitution of Sri Lanka, Chapter III, Fundamental Rights, 13, 3
  35. Judicial System of Sri Lanka, Commonwealth Governance;
  36. United Nations, Human Rights Council - Written Statement’s submitted by the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), a non-governmental organisation in special consultative status;
  37. Part VII, Chapter XXVIII of Appeals, A - 320
  38. Prison Ordinance, Chapter 66, Part IV, 55 & 62
  39. Prison Ordinance, Chapter 66, Part IV
  40. Criminal Procedure Act, B - Arrest Without A Warrant, 33
  41. Criminal Procedure Act, B - Arrest Without A Warrant, 33
  42. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, 217
  43. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26, 288
  44. Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 26