Acting Minister of Defence Pramitha Bandara, obviously getting too big for his new shoes, is talking nonsense when he says that Police approval should be obtained six hours before holding a protest, legal luminaries have opined.
Bar Association President Saliya Pieris PC points out in a Facebook post that in the 1983 case of Vivienne Goonewardene v. Hector Perera, Justice J.F.A. Soza stated that the absence of a permit did not make the continuance of the procession an offence or any of the processionists liable to arrest. “The petitioner and the others who were with her were well within their rights to ignore the order of Sub-Inspector Ganeshananthan to disperse. I might add that under Article 14(l)(b) of the Constitution the freedom of assembly is a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens.”
A senior President’s Counsel specializing in fundamental rights told the Colombo Telegraph that section 77(1) of the Police Ordinance originally required that at least six hours’ notice be given to the Police before a procession is taken out or held in a public place in an urban area. Under section 77(3), it is lawful for a Police officer not below the rank of ASP, if he considers it expedient so to do in the interests of public order, to give oral or written directions prohibiting the taking out of any procession or imposing conditions upon its organisers or participants.
In Vivienne Goonewardene’s case, the Supreme Court agreed with Dr. Colvin R. De Silva that no permit or permission was required to take out a procession. Only notice was required, and such notice may even be given orally. The punishment for contravention was a fine not exceeding five hundred rupees and/or imprisonment not exceeding six months. Since the maximum period of imprisonment that could be ordered was less than three years, the offence was not an offence for which a person could be arrested without a warrant. The Supreme Court held that the Sub-Inspector who arrested Vivienne Goonewardene, who was participating in a procession without notice being given, had no authority to order the processionists to disperse. Therefore, the petitioner could not have been arrested for obstructing the Sub-Inspector in the execution of his duties.
In 1984, section 77 was amended by requiring written notice to be given of such a procession at least six hours before taking out a procession and increasing the maximum period of imprisonment to three years, thus making it an offence for which a person can be arrested without a warrant. However, even after the amendment, no prior permission from the Police is required, the President’s Counsel pointed out. The only requirement is for written notice to be given to the officer in charge of the Police station nearest to the place at which the procession is to commence.