DC building on verge of collapse

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The Colombo District Court (DC) building is in a dilapidated condition, and is on the verge of collapsing with little to no restoration work carried out over the past several years.

Eminent lawyers claimed the authorities have done very little to renovate and protect the building which is one of the finest buildings built by Dutch engineers between 1656 and 1796.

President’s Counsel (PC) Dr. Kanaganayagam Kanag-Isvaran said the building was the residence of Dutch Governor Hulfts and it was during the time of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa that the building was last repaired.

Recalling his memories, Dr. Kanag-Isvaran told The Sunday Morning that he took oaths in 1966 when the DC building stood elegantly in Hulftsdorp. As time passed on, he noticed the deterioration of the whole building, mainly due to the lack of intervention from the authorities to renovate and protect the property.

Lawyers, litigants, and court employees have been working in this building, ignoring the threat to their lives.

The building needs serious repairs because its infrastructure is crumbling. The flooring has not been replaced for generations. Tiles have been fixed one-by-one so the flooring looks pieced together like a mismatched jigsaw puzzle. The roof has holes in it, allowing water to seep through the cracks and fall on to the court rooms.

Instead of replacing bricks when they break, holes have been caulked, allowing another avenue for rain water to get into the building; the pavements are falling apart.

The list goes on and on as the DC building has received the band-aid treatment for far too long.

Highlighting the pathetic situation of the Colombo DC building, Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President Kalinga Indatissa PC said: “This place is the centre of justice in Hulftsdorp and it was very carefully protected by S.W. Jayewardene – former President J.R. Jayewardene’s brother. We all love this place. If this building was in any other country, it would have been a protected building.”

He stressed that the authorities were planning to spend millions of rupees to create new courthouses without having a proper plan or thinking about the future.

“If you think 50 years ahead, all the courts will have to be electronically designed and structures will have to come. In that process, it is very difficult to maintain this building in Hulftsdorp in that way. It’s an ancient building and the BASL has suggested that about three courthouses be maintained there and the balance be converted to a museum,” Indatissa lamented.

“We will find the funds. You give us the permission,” he stressed.

The Sunday Morning learnt that Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala had not responded to letters that had been written by the BASL, seeking the urgent attention of the authorities to save the crumbling building.

Ideas for development

Meanwhile, speaking to The Sunday Morning, immediate past President of the BASL U.R. De Silva stressed that when he was the BASL President, he had also written and requested the authorities to take immediate action to repair the building, but none of them had bothered to do a proper renovation.

From time to time, a few repairs had been done when the employees complained, but no proper repairs had been conducted in decades, he said, adding that in one such incident after the repairs were done, they found that the people who had done it had removed the valuable timber and other materials from the building.

“Altogether, about eight courthouses and all district courts reside in this building.

People coming to the building wait both outside and inside it. Around 500 people were in the building together with the staff. Judges chambers are leaking and they can’t work peacefully. The air conditioners are also not working. The drainage system is blocked and if the rain continues for two weeks, there is a high possibility that the building will collapse,” he stressed.

However, according to former BASL President Upul Jayasuriya PC, the DC building is one of the oldest buildings in Asia and the building could be developed as a tourist destination due to its archaeological value and architecture.

Jayasuriya, who is also the former Chairman of the Board of Investments (BOI), said the building could be opened to the private sector for development and promotion.

Lashing out at Minister Athukorala for not taking any steps to maintain and protect the DC building, Jayasuriya highlighted that the situation in other court complexes were similar due to the lack of proper maintenance.

“They have funds to allocate for vehicles for the MPs and so on. The Government has a duty and we are deprived of millions. What are they doing with the money they are recovering through courts? They are not doing any development for these buildings.

There are at least 25 courthouses – DC and HC. At least 1,500 lawyers and litigants use this building. We have only one toilet, which was also put up recently, in dilapidated condition,” Jayasuriya stressed.

A continuing struggle

The Sunday Morning contacted former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to see what action he had taken to renovate the DC building and thereby avoid the disaster waiting to happen.

He said: “I was struggling for more than one year to get an alternative land, and then I got two acres from the BCC land. I was asking for six acres – in the second phase I got another two acres, and in the third I got another two acres; I had six in total. Because of Ministers Kabir Hashim and Ravi Karunanayake, all the other Ministers were opposing it; they wanted to give it to the private sector for various other purposes.”

“But somehow, the President helped me at that stage and we got that six-acre land for the Ministry of Justice. We prepared a plan for it to have 40 courthouses – complete courthouses with separate chambers for judges, a separate record room, a registry, a common utility area, and a library. From time to time, the Treasury enforced various conditions on us. They wanted us to go through a contractor who was willing to go ahead with the construction on rent basis. We’ll have to pay rent for 20-25 years to finally be entitled to the building. In the judiciary, you can’t do that as there will be litigation against those parties, and impartiality to court has to be maintained. Then, we discussed with various parties about how this needs to be implemented,” he said.

“For the first stage in early 2017, the Treasury informed us that they reserved Rs.1 billion to start the project. Thereafter, we applied for various soft loan schemes from the Treasury, and $ 70 million was allocated for some judicial project from an international organisation. In the meantime, in the middle of 2017, Thilan Wijesinghe came to our Ministry and said he is the project director of the Temple Trees Prime Minister’s Office. He wanted to go through the project transactions. Then, he took the file and went away, and that was the end of the story,” the former Minister said.

“I know for certain that I have brought this issue up three to four times at the Cabinet meetings. There will be a disaster worse than Meethotamulla because the Hulftsdorp building is more than 100 years old. At any moment, if the rain continues for two to three weeks, parts of the building will definitely collapse. Ten years ago, it happened in the High Court; luckily, it happened at night. If it happened during the day, there would have been a disaster. Now, I have warned them several times and raised the issue in Parliament as well. But they are not taking any action. One day, there will be a disaster,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Archaeology Director General Prof. Manadawela told The Sunday Morning that the DC building was owned by the Ministry of Justice and the sole authority for the renovation was with them.

“They are going to renovate it. We will advise them and give instructions. Buildings are owned by different departments and they have to maintain it themselves. It is not a responsibility of the Archaeology Department. They have to apply. There were some letters and meetings. We gave some instructions. They must have taken the necessary action. At the moment, they are preparing the estimates and so on,” he added.

All attempts to contact Justice Minister Athukorala, Ministry Secretary Meegasmulla, and Thilan Wijesinghe were futile.