The Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka (RTIC) has declined to accept the position of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) that data on inquiries into complaints against attorneys-at-law is ‘confidential’.
In a ruling handed down this Tuesday (29th August 2023), the Commission directed the BASL to release the information asked by a citizen, Kamal Vithanage, including procedures adopted by BASL in respect of disciplinary inquiries.
The five member Commission remarked that, principles of transparency and accountability relate to the BASL in as much as these same principles underline the conducting of public activities by the BASL, including conferences and seminars in furtherance of promoting and fostering the Rule of Law.
The position of the BASL that its Constitution furnished only to the Commission during the hearings of the appeal on the basis of ‘Strict Confidentiality’ by a formal letter of the BASL President at the time, Saliya Pieris, PC, was noted to be unacceptable.
‘We fail to understand the rationale on which the Constitution of the respondent, a key professional body in Sri Lanka and the procedures that it adopts in regard to disciplining its members can be construed as ‘Strictly Confidential,’ the Commission said.
The RTI Commission further observed that, ‘In this appeal, the appellant is requesting what may legitimately be referred to as ‘routine’ information; viz, firstly, the action taken by the respondent in regard to several complaints filed by him as detailed thereto including the expedition of complaints categorized as ‘serious’ and secondly, statistical data regarding complaints/petitions received by the respondent against attorneys-at-law during 2011- 2020’.
Considering the same, it was concluded that ‘considerations of secrecy’ do not apply to such information but ‘rather this is information that may be proactively disclosed by the respondent in the public interest’.
The argument of Counsel for the BASL before the Commission that, the BASL functions purely for the ‘benefit’ of its members, on account of it being a ‘voluntary’ organization of attorney and that an attorney-at-law is not mandatorily required to be a member of the respondent unlike the case in other countries and that the BASL as an entity, is distinct from individual attorneys-at-law who enter the profession, was dismissed by the RTI Commission.
It was ruled that BASL came within the definition of Article 43 (i) of the RTI Act on the basis of direct/indirect ‘material support’ that it recieved from international organizations.
The Commission also decided that, the information requested relates ‘to a service that is rendered to the public’ and which is ‘important in the public interest’ with no bar to release.
The BASL has been given time till 29th September 2023 to release the information with the Commission stating that, after the deadline, its Director General will be instructed to commence proceedings in the Magistrate’s Court for non-compliance to the Commission order.