The Legal System of the Udarata Kingdom


The Udarata kingdom had a centralized legal system, with the king at its apex. The king heard cases of treason, rebellion, conspiracy. Only he could declare the death sentence. Cases against high ranking chiefs, officers of the royal services and the servants of the court and palace were reserved for the king. The king could also hear any other case, however trivial, if he so wished and he was the final court of appeal.

All high ranking administrative officers were senior judicial officers as well. The adhikaramas could hear civil and criminal cases in all the provinces. The disawe could hear cases within his disavani. Adhikaramas could hear cases that normally came under the disawe, specially land cases, but only in communication with the chief. They could not decide without the concurrence of the disawa. Disawe heard cases in his house, in the ‘judgment room’, with subordinate officers at hand for advice. He could hear land cases. He could also hear cases previously decided by his predecessors, and revise their written decrees. Disawe could refer disputes over gardens, fields, fruit trees, housebreaking and small debts to Mohottalas and Korales. Vidanes and arachchis could settle other trifling cases. The vidanarachchi house sketched by Sansoni had had a judgment hall, now demolished. Vidane was also responsible for policing the village.

Appeals went up the same chain. But a citizen could also by pass the chain and go straight to the king. He could meet the king directly or ascend a tree near the palace and proclaim his grievance or convey it through a third party. There was no time limit for appeal to the king and cases could be re-heard under a new king. A land dispute heard in Maha naduva in 1775 was heard thereafter by Rajadhi, who upheld the decision of Kirti Sri.

Crimes included homicide, robbery, arson, forgeries, assault, gambling. Manufacturing, selling and drinking arrack and toddy was also crime. Suicide was not a crime. Courts distinguished between premeditated murder and spontaneous attack. Knox (1659-1679) said the Sinhalese were ‘not very malicious towards each other’ and their anger does not last long. They did not shed blood in their quarrels. They were little addicted to stealing, and there were very few robberies. Davy (1816-1820) said neither suicide nor murder was common. Davy’s informant could recall only five instances. Acts of assault and violence were also rare but robbery was common.

Punishment for high crime was death. Villages were declared low caste (gettaru) for disloyalty. Aludeniya village was declared gettaru by Rajasinha II because they joined the Portuguese and showed cowardice in war. There were several gettaru villages. Assaults and quarrels were usually punished by a fine. Mohottalas could only impose a maximum fine of ten ridi, koralas and arachchies could not exceed five. In the case of suicide, those in the vicinity were fined 50 ridis, for not having paid sufficient attention to the deceased. No fine if the suicide was of unsound mind. A collective fine was imposed on a village in which a murder had been committed if the offender was not detected.

There were prisons supervised by the hirage kankanama but offenders were not imprisoned for long periods as punishment. All punishments, including fines, had to take into account the status of the offender. The lower classes could be punished using ‘blows with the open hand’ or twigs. Headmen were tied to a kitul tree when whipped, the ordinary folk were tied to mora trees. Chiefs rarely suffered physical punishment. Disawe could not inflict corporal punishment on certain ranks such as Mohottalas . Only Adhikarama could punish with a cane.

Most disputes were over land. The litigants would first refer the matter to the neighbours. When that failed, they would lodge a formal complaint. The inquiry would take two or three days. Meals were served, no records were kept. The complainant and accused would be questioned and witnesses examined. The court would discuss all the aspects of the case, taking into account not only the evidence given, but their personal knowledge of the matter. The accused, if convicted was fined but he could protest and get the fine reduced. If the accused was acquitted, complainant could be punished for attempting to bring disgrace on the accused.

There were two tribunals that could hear cases, one at the top and the other at the bottom. They would have given sound judgments, said one analyst. The gam sabha consisting of the village elders met at an ambalama or shady tree or other central place for amicable settlement without delay or expense of disputes regarding debts, thefts, quarrels, and petty offences Appeal from gamsabhava went first to mohottala then upwards.

The Maha Naduwa in Kandy consisted of the adhikaramas, disavas, rateralas and a few lekamas. (Lekama was an official, not a writer. It heard cases referred to it by the king. In 1814, two sets of spies caught entering Udarata were formally tried before the Maha naduwa, found guilty and punished. Most cases however were ones which did not exceed the judicial power of the Adhikarama. Cases could be either original or appeal cases. The court met when necessary, either within the palace or the verandah of the Audience Hall. Chiefs sat according to rank. The inquiry was conducted by Adhikarama. Plaintiff was heard first, then defendant, then evidence. Witnesses were examined on the same day. If witness was ill, then evidence was obtained in writing, if possibly under oath. Witnesses unable to attend sent written statements. Proceedings were oral, no records were kept. There were no intermediaries. ‘These people plead their own cause before courts of justice. Here are neither lawyers nor counsel’ said Knox.

When land cases were decided by the Maha naduwa, a ‘sittu’ containing the names of the litigants, land in dispute, decision of the court and date, signed by adhikarama was given to the successful party. Only adhikarama could give sittu. The sittu remained as a title deed in the family and was produced when disputes arose later. No copy was kept in the court. Divi sittu were given to the winning party when the case had been decided through trial by ordeal, such as boiling oil. There was also ‘vitti vattoru,’ written statements made by witnesses. And normal ‘vattoru’ which contained a list of movable and immovable property ordered to be seized. Mohottalas and korales could also give these vattoru but without signature.

Udarata law was ‘saturate with abstract ideas of justice’ observed Ralph Pieris. Niti Nighanduwa had declared ‘as the sap nourishes trees and plants so in the absence of justice the nourishment required for the body politic is lost’. Those administering justice ‘should maintain equanimity, not take sides, not be talkative, only say what is ‘appropriate and necessary and be intent on doing good.’

Dead bodies were not to be touched till the ‘sakki ballanda’ looked to determine cause of death. Near relations, servants and slaves could not give evidence on behalf of the complainant in criminal cases. Trials could be renewed. A case first heard in 1709, with subsequent judgments going this way and that, was finally settled in 1737. In another case, litigants produced an ola of 1620, a sittu of 1665, deeds of 1667, 1678, 1685 and 1687. Judgment was given on the original ola, the rest were dismissed.

Some chiefs had shown integrity and good judgment. But as Knox observed, the top administrators were not always well versed in the law and gave faulty judgments. Subordinate officers had to advise them. The system had no safeguards against corruption either. Presents were given in private and accepted. It was the custom to give a bulat surulla of forty betel leaves and a pingo of food and fruits to the judge. This was considered normal. The bulat surulla offered however could be reclaimed the person did not get what he wanted. The rich would give more and this could easily be perverted into bribes. The king, on various occasions, gave verbal orders forbidding the chiefs from receiving bribes above the lawful fee. A person could always bribe the higher official to grant him a decree without even listening to the other side. If the chief refused, the litigant would wait till a more pliant person was appointed and reopen the case. persons could also wriggle out of punishment by bribing.

Davy (1816-1820) said Udarata had no written laws and kept no records whatsoever of judicial proceedings. Judges were directed by ‘precedent and principles of equity’. ‘Niti nighanduwa’ (1876) also said the laws were unwritten, but that kings and ministers were well experienced in the traditional law and knew what was legal and what was not. it added ‘it is the duty of wise men to learn the law and judge without bias.’ These utterances indicate that there definitely was a known body of law. If it was not written down, then perhaps it was transmitted orally from one generation to another. However, at this time, Udarata was writing everything else down, lekam miti, kadaimpot, Mahavamsa, sannas, tudapat, hatan kavi, bandaravaliya, discussions with foreign envoys and letters of complaint to the Dutch, so the reluctance to write down at least some basic laws is surprising.

The writings of J. Davy, L.S .Dewaraja, J. D’Oyly, Wilfred Jayasuriya, J. Knox, H. Marshall, R. Percival. P.E. Pieris, Ralph Pieris, B. Sansoni, Kapila Wimaladharma and Niti Nighanduwa were used for this essay.

By Kamalika Pieris

Courtesy: The Island


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