Cambridge, bar exams and return to Ceylon – The Island

by Nimal Wikramanayake

I went up to Cambridge early in October 1955 full of confidence and hope, but unfortunately my hopes were dashed to the ground shortly thereafter. In my first tutorial I was required in my Legal History class to write a tutorial on clause 39 of the Magna Carta -the clause which required “that no man shall be tried except by his peers” This reference, of course, was to the Barons and to no one else. I wrote a forty-page tutorial of which I was enormously proud. The result: I received an “A” while two other students received “A+” In my next tutorial in Roman Law, the same thing happened. The same two students bested me. I was devastated.

I lost all interest in my studies. Why, you may ask. You might find my reaction strange. I desperately needed my father’s approval, which I had never received. According to my father, who had been a first-class student, one was required to come first in everything one did. Nothing else was sufficient. (Many, many years later I learned that Kerry Packer and Tony Greig, the famous English cricketer, desperately sought their fathers’ approval, which they never received. I suffered the same fate.)

The upshot of this was that I stopped going to lectures and spent the next two and a half years playing poker and partying. These poker games were a spectacle to behold; it was a game of no-limit draw poker. I will give you an example of this game. On one occasion we started playing poker on a Friday evening and continued right through the night until Saturday afternoon. At this stage I was down 200 pounds. How was I to pay this when my allowance was only 50 pounds with which, in addition, I had to pay my college bills? We decided to take a short break from the game and went to the cinema.

The film was Love in the Afternoon with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. After watching the film, we returned to the game and finished playing on Sunday morning. I was finally up two pounds.I returned to my rooms in college and fell asleep. When my girlfriend, whom I later married, woke me up in the evening, I told her that I had four aces.

Prejudice in action

It was now March 1958 and I suddenly realised that I was in serious trouble. I had intended to go down to London and sit for the English barristers’ exams (the Bar exams) when I finished up at Cambridge in order to practise later on in Ceylon as an advocate.

The Bar exams came in two parts. I had to get a Second-Class in my law degree to be exempted from part I of the Bar exams. I went and saw Michael “Mickey” Dias, the greatest Ceylonese academic who was then the editor of Clerk and Lindsell on Torts. Mickey had taken six starred first classes at Cambridge; two in classics, three in the Law Tripos and one in the LLB, and had come first in his six years of study at Cambridge. In order to get a starred first one had to obtain an aggregate mark of over 80 per cent in every subject.

Mickey had initially studied classics and after that changed to Law. He got his LLB and LLM, as he came from one of the great legal families in Ceylon. Michael’s father R F Dias was a Supreme Court judge in Ceylon. Unfortunately, racism reared its ugly head at Cambridge; Mickey could not get a post there and ended up as a lecturer at Nottingham University. However, he later obtained a lectureship at Magdalene College (pronounced “Maudlane”) Cambridge. He was a lecturer in torts for over 40 years, but he never got a professorship.

I went to see Mickey and he said, “It’s quite simple. Take your six textbooks and read each subject for half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the evening and half an hour at night” I followed his advice for two and a half months and got a Second-Class.When I returned to Ceylon in 1959, my master, Kingsley Herat, used to read textbooks like novels. He taught me how to read legal textbooks. All you had to do was pick the book up and read it.

The Bar examination

My next task was to pass the barristers’ final examination which was being held two months later in September 1958. This exam had eleven subjects, eight of which were new to me, but I decided to sit for it. I came a cropper in “Equity”, the subject in which I was to become an expert many years later. I received a Conditional Pass in Equity which meant I had to sit for this subject again at the end of November. I sat for this subject and, cocky little bastard that I was, I left for Ceylon with my Italian wife, Anna Maria, shortly afterwards. I passed and was called to the Bar in absentia in England on February 12, 1959 – 63 years ago. This meant that I was not present when the young men and women were admitted to the English Bar.

When we got to Ceylon, Anna Maria was “horrified” at the indolent life we lived. She would find toothpaste on her toothbrush in the bathroom when she awoke in the morning. Whenever I had a drink at my father’s home, the drinks trolley would be rolled out on the front verandah for me. I did not need to pour my drinks out for I would ring the bell and the servant would come and do this little job for me which I could quite easily have done for myself. Was there some racism in my own attitude towards our coloured servants, I wonder?

My wife, the white woman

Anna Maria, who is Italian, came from a little town called Asolo in the district of Veneto in the north of Italy. During our time in Ceylon, she occasionally had to endure slights and insults, which she did with considerable dignity. In Ceylon in the 1950s, racial prejudice worked against white women who had married Sinhalese and Tamil men. Before I went to England my father had told me that I should not marry a white woman as she would meet with hostility and prejudice in Ceylon. He told me that a friend of his called Rajasingham had married a French girl and brought her back to Ceylon As a young lawyer he had to live with his parents because he had no work and no money. His mother detested his wife and used to make blistering hot curries for her and treat her badly. The wife finally went back to Paris after few years. This was not an isolated case.

It also happened to a very dear friend of mine who grew up with me – the late Vernon de Silva. Vernon went off to England in the 1960s and qualified as a medical specialist – a physician. He married a delightful English girl but his mother refused to acknowledge her and Vernon could not take her back to Sri Lanka. He had to settle in Australia.Fortunately, the people in Sri Lanka are more civilised today and many Sri Lankan-born men and women have married Europeans and Australians.

I remember one occasion in 1959 when we were invited to the wedding of a friend of mine, Chandra Seneviratne. His parents were extremely wealthy, and the wedding was held in their luxurious home in Rosemead Place, Colombo 7. It was customary at Sinhalese weddings for the women to congregate together inside the houses whilst the men regaled themselves in the large expansive gardens outside. I took Anna Maria into the house so that she could mingle with the women.

The wives of several friends of mine were gathered in one of the ante rooms so I took her in and introduced her to the ladies who were present. I asked one of the ladies to look after Anna Maria. I then went out onto the spacious lawn and joined my friends. Fifteen minutes later, Anna Maria came hurrying out and joined me. She was quite distraught. I asked her what had happened; and she told me that the ladies had kept conversing in Sinhalese and had deliberately gone out of their way to snub her. That was the last time I associated with these friends.

The early days

I was called to the Bar in Ceylon on October 12, 1959. It was a glorious day – I received numerous briefs from Dad’s proctors because Dad was at the height of his powers. I thought, what a wonderful profession. But unfortunately this was not to last.

The prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike had been shot a few weeks before I was admitted to practice. Shortly afterwards, the Chief Priest of the Kelaniya Temple, Buddharakkita Thero, and several others were charged with his murder. Earlier in the year, Dad had appeared for Dr Lenora, a physician and politician, in a defamation case against Mrs Vimala Wijewardene, then Minister of Local Government and a friend of the Chief Priest. Dad was successful and Dr Lenora was awarded Rs 100,000 ($20,000), which was a princely sum in 1959. The Chief Priest was so impressed that he wanted Dad to appear for him. Dad refused, as he had not done a criminal case since the early days.

Truth and justice

When a law student goes to law school, young and enthusiastic and full of hope, all he or she is interested in is truth and justice. My readers will probably think me a nasty old cynic when I say that it is not an absolute rule that truth and justice exist in legal proceedings. Many strange and unusual events can occur in a case which have nothing to do with truth and justice. I will give you a classic example to back up my statement, although one could argue that this case is an aberration.

Shortly after I was admitted to the Ceylon Bar, I was retained as junior counsel in a seduction case. In Ceylon, in the late 1950s – if I might put it rather indelicately – the goods were returned if they were spoiled. In the villages, the sheets were required to be hung out after the wedding night, just as in villages in Italy. The action for seduction comes from Roman law and from there it was introduced into Roman-Dutch law. The action is brought for “defloration of a virgo intacta” or the deflowering of a virgin. It was introduced into Roman Law by Justinian over 1,500 years ago when virginity was seen as a precious commodity. The Dutch ruled a small portion of the country from Colombo to Galle, including the town of Colombo, and introduced Roman-Dutch law into the country. Seduction, however, has a completely different meaning today. Our client was being sued not only for seduction, but for paternity, for giving the poor woman a baby.

The client turned up at my leader’s chambers for a conference and brought the record keeper of the army with him. The record keeper brought along the attendance register of the army which disclosed that our client was 200 miles away in an army camp in Jaffna for well over a year when the alleged incident took place, and could not have been in Colombo as alleged by the woman.

Months later, the lady attended court with her little son on the day judgment was to be delivered. He was the spitting image of our client. The result, however, was a foregone conclusion as the record keeper’s evidence was accepted and the lady’s action was dismissed.When we came out of court after judgment had been delivered, my leader Neville Samarakoon turned to the client and said to him, “That’s your child.’

The client replied, “Yes, it is, you see the record keeper is my best friend. He signed me up as being present in the barracks in Jaffna when I was having intercourse with the woman in Colombo 200 miles away. And this happened on most weekends for quite some time”

I was devastated. This was dreadful! I felt shattered. There was no such thing as truth and justice. I returned home mortified. I decided to leave the legal profession. I told Anna Maria that I was leaving the Bar immediately. After a few days, however, I calmed down and decided to carry on regardless. I became a cynical old man eventually.

The lean years

When I went to the Bar, my father was chairman of one of the big industrial companies in the country, the Associated Motorways Group, and in addition, chairman of the Free Lanka Insurance Company, the second largest Ceylonese insurance company in Ceylon. He sent a directive to the various officers of these companies that under no circumstances was I to be briefed by them in court proceedings. Dad wanted me to make my name without any help from him. Further, when proctors briefed him in a case, they would ask him whether he wanted me to be briefed as his junior. He would tell them that it was up to them to decide whether I was good enough to be briefed in the matter. So I was never briefed as my father’s junior in my early years at the Ceylon Bar as I was completely inexperienced as a barrister/advocate.

At that point in time there were three Queen’s Counsel who were pushing their sons extremely hard.In addition, I had married outside not only my caste but outside my race, which was frowned on at the time. I was shattered by his attitude, which was inexplicable to me. I now realise that his behaviour conditioned me for the extremely hard times I was to endure later on in Australia.

Although my early years at the Bar in Ceylon were extremely difficult, it was having to endure the buffets of fate with equanimity later in an extremely prosperous environment that was soul-destroying.

Anna Maria, my heroine

My dear wife was extremely supportive in those early years between 1959 and 1965 as briefs were few and far between. Life was a tremendous struggle without any help from my parents. An advocate or barrister who goes to the Bar without private means or legal contacts faces a perilous existence in his early years.

In 1963, as I was struggling to exist, I applied for a job with the Legal Department of the Employers Federation. This was a large organization which acted in disputes between commercial companies and their employees. I heard nothing from the company about my job application. Several months later, I met the chief legal officer, Lyn Wirasekera, who was a friend of Dad’s and enquired from him why I had not been called for an interview. He looked at me strangely and remarked that he had sent me a telegram calling me for an interview but I had not turned up.

It transpired that Anna Maria had destroyed the telegram. When I asked her why she had done that, she said she knew I had set my heart on being an advocate of the Supreme Court, that that was my destiny and I did not need to work for the Employers Federation.

As things did not improve during the following year, I applied for employment at the Estate Employers Federation as a legal officer. This was an organization formed by the plantation companies to act for them in legal disputes they had with their employees. The same thing happened again. I received a telegram calling me for an interview for a job. My wife again destroyed the telegram without my knowledge, so thanks to my dear wife I was destined to reach the top of the Junior Bar in Ceylon by 1968.

Humour the bastards

While I was reading in 19601 would go into court with my master, Neville Samarakoon. Whenever a judge said something remotely funny and looked about for approval, my master would fall into paroxysms of laughter. I later asked him why he was laughing when there was nothing funny in what the judge had said. His reply was, “Nimal, you must always kowtow to those stupid bastards. Humour the bastards and they will think you are a great bloke.”

Many years later at the Ceylon Bar there was a judge, S S Kulatileke, who fancied himself to be a comedian. He would often declaim what he considered to be a humorous remark and then turn from side to side looking for approval. I remember on one occasion he was doing a criminal case, and when the case was for hearing he shouted, “Call the robbers!” and started laughing, looking around. I decided that here was my opportunity to test my master’s theory. I burst out into raucous laughter. I positioned myself at a point where he would turn his face and each time I would burst into paroxysms of laughter at his witticisms. As a result, Kulatileke thought I was what the Italians call simpatico. Judge Kulatileke was very fond of me and, surprisingly, I never lost a case before him. Although my advocacy may have contributed in some measure to my success, I would advise all junior barristers to “Humour the bastards!”

In 1968,1 won an interesting case before Judge Kulatileke which also reinforced my belief that it is doubtful whether truth and justice exist in law courts. This was a landlord and tenant case. It was a most unusual case, for most of the properties in Colombo came under the Rent Control Act. The tenant could only lose his or her tenancy if the premises were reasonably required for the landlord’s use and occupation, or if the tenant surrendered the premises to the landlord. The likelihood of the tenant surrendering possession of the property was not only extremely rare but well-nigh impossible. In this case, it appeared that the tenant had delivered a written notice of surrender to my client, the landlord.

I opened my case and called the client. He gave his evidence about the surrender then Mr AK Premadasa got up to cross-examine my client. Premadasa was the leader in the Landlord and Tenant Jurisdiction. He subpoenaed my client to produce all the rent receipts over a period of some 36 months. The client was only able to produce 35; one rent receipt was missing. A peculiar feature of the rent receipts was disclosed – some of them were signed by the tenant at the bottom of the page. They were on A4 foolscap paper, not in a normal receipt book. Premadasa suggested to my client that he had torn off the thirty-sixth receipt and typed in this surrender letter above the tenant’s signature.

I reminded Judge Kulatileke that Premadasa was the acknowledged leader of the Landlord and Tenant Jurisdiction and that he was noted for his guile. It was an interesting theory that he had formulated, and because he was the leader of the Tenancy Bar he expected the judge to accept this ridiculous theory of his. I asked why anyone would resort to such a subterfuge. I argued that the defendant had decided to surrender his premises and then had had a change of heart. The receipt was ample proof of his behaviour. The judge accepted my submissions and I was successful.

Some members of the general public are under the misapprehension that lawyers are liars. Most of us certainly are not. We have to put our client’s story across. Occasionally my client comes with a story which would put Baron Munchausen to shame, but I have to put it across. That is what I am paid to do, although occasionally I have some doubts about its authenticity.When we came out of court I told my client that maybe Premadasa was right. My client then admitted he had indeed torn off the receipt and typed in the surrender in place of the receipt.

So much for truth and justice.

(To be continued)
(Excerpted from A Life In The Law – A Memoir)