Overview of Sri Lanka’s Legal Regime

Sri Lanka’s Judiciary is a legal system which is a combination of English common law, Roman-Dutch civil law and Customary Law. Statutes enacted by Parliament form the primary source of law. Judicial precedents, statutes enacted by Provincial Councils and customs and usage also constitute the law of the land. The judicial system is defined in the Constitution, as an independent institution which provides the traditional framework of checks and balances.

The Judiciary is a Vertical Courts System; the Supreme Court is the highest and final court of law. The Appellate Courts comprise of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The Courts of First Instances are the High Court, the Commercial High Court, the District Court and the Magistrates’ Court. Within this system are incorporated specific courts to deal with Islamic Law, Labour Tribunals, Courts Martial, and other Tribunals which perform functions of a quasi-judicial nature, which are, however, capable of revision by the Superior Courts.

  • The Supreme Court has jurisdiction for all constitutional matters; protection of fundamental human rights; final appellate jurisdiction from the High Courts and Court of Appeal; consultative jurisdiction; jurisdiction in election petitions, breach of parliamentary privileges and other matters which Parliament may vest or ordain by law.

  • There is one Court of Appeal, which sits in Colombo and has appellate jurisdiction in respect of criminal matters from the Provincial High Court. It also has the power to issue orders in the nature of writs of certiorari, prohibition, procedendo, mandamus and quo warranto.

  • There is only one Commercial High Court, which also sits in Colombo, which exercises exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine all actions, applications and proceedings where the cause of action has arisen out of commercial transactions in which the debt, damage or demand is for a sum exceeding LKR 5 million, and disputes under the law relating to companies and Intellectual Property.

  • Each Province has a High Court of Civil Appeal, which exercises civil jurisdiction in respect of appeals from the District Court. These Courts have been established with the specific objective of expediting civil appeals from the District Courts.

  • Each Province also has a Provincial High Court, which has original criminal jurisdiction in respect of serious criminal offences such as rape, murder, etc. The Provincial High Court exercises appellate jurisdiction over appeals from Magistrates’ Courts and Labour Tribunals.

There are other Administrative Tribunals and Special Courts, such as the Rent Boards, Ceiling on Housing Property Board, Land Acquisition Board, Quazis and Boards of Quazis, Agricultural and Labour Tribunals, Courts Martial and Islamic Courts (which have been established for the followers of Islam to conduct their judicial activity according to their customs), which perform functions of a quasi-judicial nature. The decisions of these bodies are capable of revision by the Appellate Courts by way of writs or appeals, as provided by the various enactments by which they had been established.