Criminal Justice System Of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon until 1972, is a tropical island nation in the Indian Ocean lying off the southeast coast of peninsular India. It has the total land area of 65 607 square kilometres, and the total population of 16.1 million (as of 1986). The annual population growth rate is estimated at 1.7%.

The two principal linguistic (racial) groups in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese (74%) and the Tamils (18.2%). Also, approximately 7.1% of the population are of the Arabic origin, who are mentioned as the Sri Lankan Moors.

As for the religious groups, approximately 69.3% of the people are Buddhists, most of whom are the Sinhalese, and 15.5% are Hindus, who are mostly the Tamils. Besides, 7.6% are Muslims and 6.8% are Christians of various denominations.

As for the structure of the government, Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, and is now an independent republic within the commonwealth nations. The national law making body is the Parliament, formerly called the National State Assembly or the House of Representatives, which is, as of 1986, composed of 168 seats. The members of the Parliament are elected by the Sri Lankan citizens aged 18 years or older. The head of the Republic is represented by the President, who is directly elected by the citizens aged 18 years or older. The term of the President is also for 6 years.

The cabinet is led by the Prime Minister who is appointed by the President from among the Parliament members. As of 1986, the cabinet is composed of 49 ministerial posts, excluding the Prime Minister.

The entire nation is divided into 25 administrative regions as of 1986. Each region is governed by the Government Agent, who is appointed by the central government.

The economy of the country is still precariously dependent on the exports of its plantation products such as tea, rubber and coconuts. GNP per capita was US$354 as of 1986. The unit of the national currency is Rupee (Re or Rs).


According to the colonisation by the British Empire, the British laws were gradually applied throughout the nation. However, due to the unsatisfactory state of the then existing criminal laws which led to a state of uncertainty, the Penal Code of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was first enacted in 1833. It is said that the Law was based on the corresponding Indian law. This Penal Code holds good up to now with several amendments.

The Penal Code embodies categories of offences, the punishments to which offenders are liable under the Code and general exceptions to criminal liability.

The broad categories of offences are:

  • offences against the state,
  • offences against public tranquillity,
  • offences affecting the human body,
  • offences against property,
  • offences relating to religion,
  • sexual and marital offences and
  • offences relating to coins and government stamps.

Punishments prescribed under the Penal Code are: death, imprisonment (simple and rigourous), whipping, forfeiture of property and fine.

The principal general exceptions to criminal liability recognised by the Code are: insanity, intoxication, necessity, duress and private defence.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility is eight years. A child under eight years of age is considered incapable of possessing `mens rea'. Those over eight years but under twelve years are not punished unless they have attained sufficient maturity.

As for criminal procedure, the first law of this kind was the Criminal Procedure Code of 1882, which was replaced by the Criminal Procedure Ordinance of 1898. In 1974, the Administration of Justice Law was introduced but it was only operated for 4 years. The present law is the Code of Criminal Procedure Act, which was enacted in 1979. Also, the Judicature Act was enacted in 1978, which provides the basis of judiciary administration.

Among other significant crime-related special legislations are:

  • the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance,
  • the Explosive Ordinance,
  • the Firearm Ordinance,
  • the Offensive Weapons Act,
  • the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and
  • the Offences Against Aircraft Act.

As for the courts system, the procedure and functions of the criminal courts are today governed by the Code of Criminal Procedure Act and the Judicature Act. The Magistrate's Court is the criminal court to deal with most of the offences, and the Primary Court also deals with some minor criminal cases.

According to the law, certain grave offences such as murder, attempted murder and rape are tried in the High Court. A case in the High Court is handled by judge and jury or by judge alone. The jury is composed of 7 jurors, elected at random from the jury list.

The appeal or the second instance of criminal trial is conducted by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court exercise final appellate jurisdiction as well as special jurisdiction for alleged violations of fundamental rights and freedom guaranted under the Constitution. The Supreme Court consists of 11 justices including the Chief Justice.

The justices of the Supreme Court and the judges of the Appeal and High Courts are appointed by the President; the judges of the lower courts are appointed by the Judicial Service Commission. The Commission is the judiciary administrative body which is composed of three Supreme Court Justices headed by the Chief Justice.

Most of the prosecution against criminal cases are conducted by the investigation officers, namely the police themselves. However, as far as those serious offences to be tried in the High Court are concerned, or whenever it deems necessary, the public prosecutors, who are entitled as the State Councils or the State Attorneys, shall prosecute the cases. These public prosecutors are under the Attorney-General's Department and supervised by the Attorney-General, who is appointed by the President.


Punishments prescribed under the Penal Code are: death, imprisonment (simple and rigourous), whipping, forfeiture of property and fine. According to the Third United Nations Survey however, statistical data are not available with regard to death penalty, whipping and property sanctions such as fine and forfeiture.


It was recorded that, in 1986, 384 unconvicted persons per 100 000 population and 91 convicted persons were admitted into prisons. The number of admissions of the unconvicted inmates was more than 4 times larger than that of the convicted inmates. In terms of the daily average population, the number of unconvicted inmates was 1.3 times larger than that of the convicted inmates. It is therefore considered that overcrowding in prisons is mainly due to the large number of unconvicted inmates, or remand prisoners.

It is said that the reason for overcrowding of remand prisoners is mostly due to the delays in bringing the offenders to trial, which is commonly known as `court delays' in Sri Lanka. It is also mentioned that inadequate use of bail provisions have contributed to the increase in the remand population. It is common to see a large number of inmates detained in jails for their inability to furnish the bail ordered to them.

Another cause of overcrowding in prisons is the large portion of short- term prisoners. In fact, it is found that of persons convicted to prisons in 1987, 61.6% were sentenced to less than 6 months. Reportedly, still another reason for the increase of prison population is the large number of persons admitted into prison for the default of payment of their fines.

Therefore, various countermeasures against prison overcrowding are researched and studied jointly by agencies in the field of criminal justice in Sri Lanka. Among the suggested countermeasures are: limited use of remand in prisons, increased use of release on personal bond, modification of penal sanctions, active use of alternatives such as probation and community service order.


There are various facilities for the protection and rehabilitation of delinquent and pre-delinquent juveniles. It could be summarised as follows:

In order to facilitate the rehabilitation of delinquents and pre- delinquent juveniles, whose home circumstances are disorganised, the legal provision exists for the approval of private residences as accommodation where necessary care and protection may be provided for these delinquent juveniles. There are now over 200 voluntary homes in Sri Lanka and the government pays monthly `per capita grant' for their services.

There are also day-care centres for orphans, destitutes or deserted children, with the assistance granted by the Department of Probation and Child Care Services.

There are institutions run by the government and other voluntary organisations, which provide protection especially to the juveniles who fall into the category of `Protection Service'. There are state-run and voluntary institutions throughout the nation.


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