Sri Lanka Table of Contents
As defined by the Constitution of 1978, the judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeal, a High Court, and a number of magistrate's courts (one for each division, as set out in the Administration of Justice Law). In cases of criminal law, the magistrate's courts and the High Court are the only courts with primary jurisdiction, and their respective domains are detailed in the Code of Criminal Procedure. Appeals from these courts of first instance can be made to the Court of Appeal and, under certain circumstances, to the Supreme Court, which exercises final appellate jurisdiction. In all cases, the accused has the right to representation by an attorney, and all trials must be public unless the judge determines, for reasons of family privacy, national security, or public safety, that a closed hearing is more appropriate.
The vast majority of the nation's criminal cases are tried at the lowest level of the judicial system, the magistrate's courts. Cases here may be initiated by any police officer or public servant, or by any oral or written complaint to the magistrate. The magistrate is empowered to make an initial investigation of the complaint, and to determine whether his court has proper jurisdiction over the case, whether it should be tried by the High Court, or whether it should be dismissed. Magistrates' courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over all criminal cases involving fines of up to Rs1,500 or prison sentences of up to two years. If the magistrate's court is determined to have the necessary jurisdiction, prosecution may be conducted by the complainant (plaintiff) or by a government officer, including the attorney general, the solicitor general, a state counsel, a pleader authorized by the attorney general, or any officer of any national or local government office. At the trial, the accused has the right to call and cross-examine witnesses. Trials are conducted without a jury, and the verdict and sentence are given by the magistrate. Any person unsatisfied with the judgment has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeal on any point of law or fact.
For criminal cases involving penalties over Rs1,500 or two years imprisonment, original jurisdiction resides with the High Court. The High Court is the highest court of first instance in criminal law, and exercises national jurisdiction. Prosecution must be conducted by the attorney general, the solicitor general, a state counsel, or any pleader authorized by the attorney general. During the trial, the accused or his or her attorneys are allowed to present a defense and call and cross-examine witnesses. For more serious offenses, including crimes against the state, murder, culpable homicide, attempted murder, and rape, the law provides for trial by jury. In such cases, a jury of seven members is chosen by lot from a panel elected by the accused unless the court directs otherwise. Both the prosecution and the defense have the opportunity to eliminate proposed members of the jury. The jury is required to reach a verdict by a majority of no less than five to two. (Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, the right to a jury was suspended for a wide variety of offenses involving violations of communal harmony defined as incitement of one ethnic group against another.) In cases where the law does not prescribe trial by jury, the judge gives the verdict and passes sentence at the conclusion of the hearings. As in the magistrate's courts, the accused has the right of appeal to the Court of Appeal on any matter of law or fact.
As its name suggests, the Court of Appeal has only appellate jurisdiction in matters of criminal law. Cases before the court are conducted without a jury. Appeals from the High Court must be heard by a bench of at least three judges, whereas appeals from a magistrate's court require at least two judges. Verdicts are reached by majority decision, and therefore a supplemental judge is added in cases of a split vote. As in other courts, appellants are entitled to representation by an attorney, but if they cannot afford legal counsel, the Court of Appeal may, at the discretion of the judges, assign an attorney at the court's expense. After the court has handed down its decision, further appeal to the Supreme Court may be made on any matter involving a substantial question of law, but an appeal requires the approval of either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court itself.
The Supreme Court was substantially refashioned by the 1978 Constitution, with many of its former functions reverting to the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court in the 1980s consisted of a chief justice and between six and ten other justices who sit as a single panel on all cases before the court. Cases are conducted without a jury, and the court exercises final appellate jurisdiction for all errors in fact or in law.
Data as of October 1988
Sri Lanka Table of Contents