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H.L. The "Hulftsdorp Lion": An Anniversary Tribute to H.L.de Silva

by Kandiah Neelakandan

I had known Deshamanya H. L. De Silva, President’s Counsel as one of my respected Seniors of the Bar for almost four decades. He had served his country in different capacities beginning as a State Counsel when he commenced his practice and later as his Country’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Although he was a multi-faceted personality, I wish to remember him on his first death anniversary (7th April 2010) and pay him tribute as a "Hulftsdorp Lion". He was known to all his friends by his initials "H.L" but we looked upon him as a ‘Hulftsdorp Lion’.

I had the pleasure of associating with the late Mr. H. L. de Silva, instructing him in our Firm’s court cases since the time he reverted to the unofficial Bar in 1970, in which year I was admitted to practice as a Proctor S.C. In fact, when he reverted back to the unofficial Bar in 1970, his first brief was from our Firm as Mr. V. Murugesu my Senior, had encouraged his good friend Mr. H. L. de Silva to join the private bar and I vividly remember the pleasure of instructing him to obtain an interim injunction in a case involving the National Lotteries Board. That was his first appearance at the unofficial Bar after leaving the AG’s department that too in the District Court of Colombo. The last time I met him one year ago - I think it was in March 2009 - he recollected a number of cases including the Collettes -v- Bank of Ceylon case, in which he worked hard and he shared with me his pleasant as well as his bitter experiences of Hulftsdorp in his forthright manner.

Made history in F.R. Jurisdiction

When the fundamental jurisdiction was given to the Supreme Court, it was Mr. H.L.de Silva who created history by arguing and extending the scope of jurisdiction. I sat by his side (instructing him) and watched how he fought for a student who was denied admission to Medical College. That was the case of Perera and another –v- University Grants Commission reported in (1978, 1979, 1980)1 Sri Lanka Reports page 128. That was perhaps the first fundamental rights application successfully argued on the right to equality of opportunity under Article 12 (1) of the 1978 constitution. The petitioner was his own niece but there is no doubt he would have argued the case with the same viguor even if it was for a stranger.

Team Player

Two leading cases in which I had the pleasure of closely working with this Hulftsdorp Lion were Collettes -v- Bank of Ceylon and ‘Rabea’ Trade Mark case. Having asked his senior Mr. P. Navaratnarajah Q.C. who was always a ‘Master of facts’ to present the facts in Collettes case he argued the questions of Law. Like all the others who appeared for Collettes Limited he regretted that we lost the appeals for mysterious reasons. He was talking of his disappointment with the judgments of Superior Courts even when I met him in March 2009 – a few days before his unfortunate demise. The other case which was also fought hardly was infringement of trade mark "Rabea". When arguing the appeals in the Superior Courts he got Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, P.C. who was his junior in those appeals also to argue some of the points of appeal. Thus he was really an excellent team player. At conferences he would discuss the issues with us. I always remember him as one of the Seniors from whom I had learnt a lot during the period of four decades.

He was persevering and hardworking. He was fortunate to have his wife who stood by him not only in his personal life but also in his professional career. I remember he used to tell us how his wife was helping him in typing and re-typing drafts which he would keep on changing during the times when there was no computer. He used to get up at 4.00 a.m. and study the briefs and prepare for the Court work of the day. Of course his wife had been preparing coffee and keeping in a flask for him to wet his powerful throat.

Stood for Professional ideals and traditions

He always maintained the highest traditions of the Profession. When he was the President of the BASL, Mr. H.L. de Silva, P.C., addressed the newly admitted Attorneys-at-Law on 30th October 1988 and urged them to "safeguard professional ideals and maintain professional traditions". He pointed out :-

"…. unlike other organisations of persons who are engaged in an occupation, the Bar Association is not essentially a trade union or a body of persons who are engaged in wielding power or authority through collective action. It is principally and above everything else an association of professional men.

"What binds them together is their commitment to upholding certain principles, standards and values in the conduct of their professional business. It engenders in them or at any rate ought to create in them a certain pride in the observance of rules of conduct and etiquette, even when compliance with the rules may not always be to their personal advantage, if considered from a narrow and selfish viewpoint. This commitment must stand firm because in the long run the observance of these rules is necessary in the interests of the general welfare of the members of the profession and the public. So that the essential significance of the Bar Association is that it is a body which is concerned with the maintenance of professional standards and the upholding of certain principles and values which are considered to be necessary for the proper administration of justice…. "

In a country where people seek offices for their personal glory, Mr. H. L. de Silva, brought honour to the office of the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), when he was elected to that office. I vividly remember how Mr. H.W. Jayewardena, Q.C., promoted the candidature of Mr. H. L. de Silva, P.C. for the presidency of the BASL despite the latter’s political alignment was to the opposite camp. The present day colleagues at the Bar should be reminded how both those great Leaders of the Bar – ‘H.W.’ and ‘H.L.’ – rose above the political party differences to protect the interests of the BASL.

Mr. H. L. de Silva, once said:-

"…….. So please remember that the Bar Association exists primarily for the protection and safe guarding of professional ideals and the maintenance of professional traditions. So if we allow these standards to deteriorate, if we permit our professional honour to be tarnished then slowly but surely the legal profession will atrophy and die."

Not afraid to speak on behalf of the Bar

Mr. H. L. de Silva was not afraid to speak on behalf of the Bar as pointed out by one of my gurus, and a close friend and University colleague of his, Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekera. Mr. Goonesekera has portrayed his friend in the following words:-

"…….. HL’s approach to any controversial matter was always clinical and legal, devoid of emotion, a trait he carried to the end. I met HL after many years when I came to practice. Even so, there was a feeling of togetherness as with old friends. He was the same reserved person whose only interest appeared to be the law. This of course did change as we all know..."

Mr. Goonsekera has also echoed the views of the members of the Bar:-

"He was not just one of the greatest lawyers of the country. He was a good and honourable man. It is difficult to lose such a friend and colleague."

Eminent Personality

As Dr. A. R. B. Amerasinghe has said in his book on the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. "In 1981, in recognition of his attainment of eminence in the profession, and of his exemplary maintenance of the highest standards of conduct and professional rectitude, HL. was appointed a Senior Attorney by the President. (In terms of Article 169A of the Constitution, which was introduced in 1984 by the Eighth Amendment, ‘Senior Attorneys’ appointed after the coming into operation of the 1978 Constitution, like HL., were designated as ‘President’s Counsel’). In 1984 he was admitted to the Roll of Honour of St. Peter’s College in recognition of his achievements in the legal profession. In 1997, the State dignified him with the title of rank ‘Vishva Prasadini (Nithiya)’: It was a mark of the ‘universal appreciation’ of his contribution to the advancement of the law and the administration of justice that is what it implies. In 2000, the students of the Law Faculty his alma mater presented him with a plaque "as a mark of appreciation of the esteemed and excellent service he had rendered in the legal field." His profession recognized his services by electing him in 1987, with an unprecedented majority of over a thousand votes, as the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka." Dr. Amerasinghe adds :-

"His devotion and uncompromising loyalty to his profession-has-never-been in doubt. It has been demonstrated on more than one occasion; but one event is worth recalling. In 1989, several lawyers were harassed and some of them were even killed. The Bar protested vehemently. H.L. has always laid stress on the importance of the legal profession in the protection of human rights."

Always conscious of moral integrity

Despite the various honours bestowed on him he was always conscious of moral integrity. Although he was appointed to the Constitutional Council, which had a role to play in the appointment of Superior Court Judges, he resigned from that Council because he was a lawyer practising in the Superior Courts. Addressing the Organization of Professional Associations on 27th October 2007 he told the professionals of the importance of maintaining the moral integrity :-

"Moral integrity in public life transcends and extends beyond the prescriptions of the statute law which seek to precisely delimit the kinds of conduct which are either prohibited or positively enjoined. In a sense the standards of conduct considered as being appropriate to a life of moral integrity may be broadly and comprehensively subsumed under the concept of good faith which like a golden thread runs through the warp and woof of all human activity. Deviations from this norm are manifold. They are all acts or omissions which are characterised by diverse forms of bad faith (mala fides) and the lack of fairness. The commonest forms in which they are manifest are abuse of power, misuse of power, fraud and corruption, including bribery, biased decisions, favoured treatment of some and victimisation of others."

He was invited as a Guest Speaker to various functions because of his talent in convincing any audience of what he said. Needless to say that was why he was chosen to represent Sri Lanka at United Nations and at various other global fora. He can speak in lighter vein also. On 16.12.1994 he had this to say at the Voetlights dinner :-

"I see that I have been described as the Guest Speaker tonight. I don’t think this is a proper description of myself because I am not here as a stranger or invitee but as one of the regular players or shall I say as one of the regular actors of Hulftsdorp Hill. Personally, I would like to be remembered in that way having been in this ball game for over four decades and having now decided to fade away into another world, namely the diplomatic world. A former Minister who had also once been a diplomat is said to have wittily remarked that diplomacy is a lot of protocol, lots of alcohol and that is all ! Judging by his appearance on T. V during the Election campaign he had a lot of talent as a comedian ....

Gentleman respected by everyone

He lived as a gentleman and won the respect and admiration of everyone. I had personally witnessed how the Judges and even his opponents at the Bar table respected him. He had strong will power, clear mind and determination. If he was disappointed that the Judges had not understood his point he would not raise his voice but instead articulate his argument in his own style in making the judges and the opponents to be stunned. He was always careful in the choice of his words. I had seen how he used to himself formulate his arguments in writing and present them in a convincing manner.

Justice Dr. A.R.B. Amarasinghe (one of the respected retired Judges of the Supreme Court) before whom Mr. H.L. de Silva, P.C. had appeared in several cases had this observation to make of Mr. H. L. de Silva :-

"He is always given a good hearing because he is well prepared, marshals the facts of his case in the most orderly way, cites authorities that are pertinent, and presents his case with clarity and without tedious repetition, with gentlemanly ease and polished courtesy and urbanity to the bench and his opponents, and always with fairness. Judges, and I was one of them, trusted him to be a partner in seeking after truth and justice. I have no reason to doubt that any change has taken place since my retirement. We had ample reason, derived from the way in which he set about his work, to believe that H.L. scrupulously follows Lord Scrutton’s advice: "Do not make the mistake of thinking that you are to go into the profession to win for your client by whatever means you can you must win by justice. You fight with the sword of a warrior, not with the dagger of an assassin. You are taking part in the administration of justice."

Devoted Christian

Mr. H. L. de Silva was born as a son of a planter of Minuwangoda on 28th January 1928. Dr. Amarasinghe portrayed. Mr. H. L de Silva who was a devoted christian husband and father as follows :-

"Undoubtedly, H.L.’s central and pivotal driving force, his power-house, has been his family. Manel, his wife, has been his most steadfast and constant friend and loyal helpmate through the vicissitudes of the changing fortunes of life through almost fifty years. H.L. and Manel have two daughters – Nilmini, a Civil Engineer, and Lakmali, an Attorney-at-Law of Sri Lanka and a Solicitor of the New South Wales Bar. H.L. and Manel have three grandsons -Sanjeev, Rajeev and Krishan. Every year, H.L. and Manel spend some months in Australia with their children and grandchildren."

When he passed away one of his nieces paid this tribute in this verse :-

"To a dear Uncle

Strange .... That one so mild-mannered, unassuming

Could a Colossus be, in the Court room.

Strange .... That the Constitution, to persuasive argument,

To interpretation, be so open, under his onslaught.

Strange .... That under his impassive expression

A passion for a Lanka undivided so consumed him.

But ... around the heart, not so strange ....

This genial host, this raconteur of anecdotes,

Political crumbs, holding forth,

Arguing, persuading, and we the jury,

Laughed then, and laugh not ......

Now, so strange .... To miss one so mild-mannered, unassuming."

I conclude with satisfaction that I was able to honour him in a fitting manner by dedicating the 2009 Bar Association Law Journal edited by me and my colleagues of the Editorial Board of the BASL. We also organized a legal essay competition among the Juniors and the late Deshamanya H. L. De Silva Memorial award was given to a young State Counsel whose article was adjudged to be the best.

Hulftsdorp Lion will be always remembered as a great leader of the Bar.

(Kandiah Neelakandanis a Partner at Murugesu & Neelakandan, Attorneys-at-Law)

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