The President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka
The desk in his office was slightly better than most lawyers’ desks in that it had less paper lying about on it but the office in his home town of Bambalapitiya was a typically bookshelf lined lawyer’s office. The spacious desk behind which he sat had 4 charming old fashioned visitors’ chairs in front and the house, unlike the furniture in his office, was a modern house designed by renowned architect C. Anjalendran and was inviting. The “he” mentioned here is none other than the newly elected – and uncontested at that – President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, .
Given the choice of starting where he wished, Geoff – that’s how he wanted us to address him – chose to start from the present and naturally from his election as the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. He said that there had been only one other nomination but that it had been rejected so the result was that his election was uncontested and that was what the majority of the Bar Association prefers for it avoids division. In the divisive political arena that we live in, to desire and have unanimity in the leadership, I thought was sensible.
With constitutional amendments being debated and parliamentary elections to
come, Geoff sees his position as the President of the Bar Association, challenging. About the constitutional amendments being debated, he lamented that constitutional amendments were being rushed by Parliament mainly to serve the interest of the Parliamentarians without sufficient discourse with Civil Society or the Bar Association. The Nineteenth Amendment was a diluted disaster related to the Constitutional Council and Independent Institutions! Fortunately, the Twentieth Amendment which was again being rushed through was not enacted. He regretted that Parliamentarians have constantly failed to have the country’s interests first or public consultation prior to enactment of constitutions or amendments to the Constitution. “We have consistently been foisted with constitutions at the whims of the politicians” he opined and went on to say that the Bar had always wanted independent bodies which promote good governance. He believes that his tasks as President include unifying the profession and uplifting standards and ethics which would involve training of young members
of the Bar. Geoff says he always was interested in the societal aspects of the legal profession and believes that the Bar should be of service to society and be apolitical.
We have consistently been foisted with constitutions at the whims of the politicians
Prior to taking silk Geoff had been involved in public interest litigation and had been one who had as a Counsel, impugned the appointment of Shirani Bandaranayake as Judge of the Supreme Court, though she was an associate of his in the Law Faculty and then opposed her removal, both on a matter of principle. He had also opposed the appointment of Sarath N. Silva as Chief Justice because according to him, Sarath N. Silva at the time was not suited to be the Chief Justice for various reasons. Speaking on his work as a President’s Counsel, he had been the 1st Petitioner in an Application against Minister Rishard Baithudeen for contempt of court. The Minister was alleged to have been involved in an incident related to an attack against the District Court of Mannar.
He recalled fighting his first Appeal Court case in 1988, which had been Collettes
vs. The Commissioner of Labour in a gratuity award matter. Intellectual Property litigation being one of the fields in which his interests lay, he talked of how he was able to argue a case where his argument was that although a person may have sold his economic rights, his moral rights remained and this had been upheld by the judge in that case.
Talking about his Law Faculty days, 1975 had been known as the “carnival year”
for the students had done the exams in 1975 and there had been no exams in 1976. For Geoff that year had been taken up by rugby, basketball and drinking the stuff that cheers. He did not forget to mention that the Law Faculty had some of the prettiest undergraduates and recalled that two among them became Misses Sri Lanka.
Having varied interests, Geoff had played rugby for St. Peter’s as well as taking part in debating where he no doubt honed his skills for battles in courts in later life. Choral singing had been another interest of his which had taken him on a tour of Europe with that famous tenor the late Fr. Claver Perera and a few others from the Bambalapitya parish. The tour had included London, Lourdes, Rome, Poland, Germany, Belgium and Holy Land, and had lasted 3 enjoyable months.
He had started singing when he was 7 years old and had been trained by Prof. Earl De Fonseka, also a Peterite. Geoff still continues with his singing sometimes with the Peterite Chorale and as a regular member of the choir of St. Mary’s Church, Bambalapitya known as The St. Mary’s Choral Group.
Rugby, it seems runs in the blood……and his brother James before him (1964-66)
Rugby, it seems runs in the blood of the Alagaratnams. His brother Stephen like Geoffrey had played rugby for St. Peter’s College, captaining the team in 1963 and had also played basketball and table tennis which had obviously influenced Geoffrey (1968-69) and his brother James before him (1964-66). His brother Herbert on the other hand had played rugger for St. Joseph’s. This had come about as he had had to join SJC to do his A/Ls in Tamil.
Geoff has had others like Mindzy Gomesz, Miftha Mohideen, Sunil Perera (whose father the legendary Archibald was the coach) as team mates in the years he played rugger for St. Peter’s. James, he recalled would have captained in 1966 but could not play due to an injury and Hamzi Hameed had captained the team. During his rugby playing days at school, having first played as wing forward he had later played as prop forward. Rioting comes naturally to rugby players and recalling the times before his 1st XV rugby days, he thought of Ronnie Gunaratne and Rodney Patternot as rioters when Geoff played in the in the 2nd XV.
Of memorable matches and wins, he recalled a match against Royal College. “We went in as underdogs”, he said “but within 5 minutes of the game Ronnie scored under the posts and in 10 minutes the score board read 10:0 in favour of St. Peter’s. We won 18:3 to the jubilation of the players and Peterite supporters alike”. A win against the Thomians was also recalled by him as a memorable one though the details escaped his memory.
Asked for teachers he remembered at St. Peter’s he mentioned M/s. Sathurukulasingham, Austin Fernando, Arthur Fernando, Ratnasabapathy (who was his brother, James’ godfather), L C Morel, Sueter Peiris, I M Wirasinghe, Victor Abeygunawardena and his son-in-law, Kingsley Jayasinghe, Nadesan, Mariayayagam, Kanagaratnam and Manoranjithan. Of classmates, including those from parallel classes, he recalled Hamish Paternott, Mindzy Gomesz, Desmond Harridge, Mano Mather, Pius Paiva, Shivanan and Selvakumar Fernando.
He happily recalled the lazy, hazy, crazy days of the 1960s in Bambalapitiya. “There were no high walls round houses and we would walk into a garden, pluck fruit and eat with no one shooing us off. Roads were relatively free of traffic and safer and living close to school meant we could come home for lunch and go back. After school if there was no sports practice we would play with friends and come home only after dark” Geoff recalled nostalgically. Geoff also remembers his school days spent with little or no private tuition and having time for school, sports, studies and church activities.
He recalled the prank of a school mate, Dominic Sansoni – when Dominic was called upon by the then Rector who summoned his dad to report Dominic’s misdemeanors – Dominic had independently informed both the Rector and his father that they would have to speak loud as the other was deaf! The end result was the Rector and Dominic’s dad shouting at each other much to the entertainment of Dominic and friends who were discreetly hidden in the corridor.
Recalling more of those days in the 60s he said “when the Josepian – Peterite Annual Big Match was played on the St Peter’s College Grounds the old boys after the match when walking from the grounds along the roadway to Galle Road would sing the familiar Sinhala refrain though modified in dedication to a then Peterite Rector, singing thus “Rosa polla geneng, Billa Maranda”
Speaking about his roots, Geoff spoke of his grandparents who had been from Jaffna but having gone to Malaysia for business his father had been born in Malaya and had studied medicine in the University of Edinburg. However his father had had to give up his studies and return to Ceylon to help his father’s (Geoff’s grandfather’s) business.
Having studied in the science stream at school, Geoff had later moved to Arts subjects and entered the Law Faculty of the University of Colombo and recalled once again his university days. With more memories flooding back Geoff recalled his rugby days in the university with Dr. Maiya Gunasekera, Dr. Fred Perera, Anselm Gunathilake, Riza Sheriff and Sunimal Heart. The latter two were Peterites recalled Geoff, though they had not played rugger for St. Peter’s College.
As we were coming towards the end of the interview, I asked if he had a philosophy which worked for him and his answer was “work hard, be focused and be principled and forthright in what you do. As a lawyer you can’t breach the confidence of court and your profession”.
He said he owed a lot to Late Justice Mark Fernando, G.F. Sethukavaler P.C and Desmond Fernando P.C. He thought the Late Justice Mark Fernando was an outstanding judge.
Asked if he has any advice for the younger generation, he said there are no short cuts to success and saw punctuality and dedication as two qualities that should be uppermost in one’s mind. “Most of all” he said “enjoy what you do”.
About his family, Geoff’s wife of 28 years, Dilani is a charming lady and is the President – HR and Legal at John Keells Holdings Ltd. The daughter, Ravisha is a shy 14 year old who refused to be photographed.
The “Quadrangle” wishes Geoffrey all the very best in the onerous job of the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.