Brunch

Being a lawyer is my calling

  • Mokshini Jayamanne on life, work, and being a lawyer in the 21st Century

To be a lawyer, is in many senses, to be a free thinker. It requires taking an established set of rules and applying it to any of the infinite situations life can present you or your clients with and use your power of thinking to protect your clients and help them thrive. 

Mokshini Jayamanne is one such free thinker. A female player in the legal profession, and especially in civil law, Mokshini does a lot of work with matrimonial disputes, finding that as a woman, she is able to empathise with and help lots of women navigate through this messy terrain along with their children, by thinking on her feet to help her clients reach the best outcome possible. As a civil lawyer, Mokshini also works on land-related disputes, money recovery, commercial arbitration, and testamentary action. 

A litigator with 15 years of experience, of late, she has made waves as the convenor of a committee of lawyers instituted by Minister of Justice Ali Sabry PC to look into reforms in civil law, with the committee proposing several landmark changes to Sri Lanka’s marriage and divorce laws. 

Outside the legal profession, Mokshini is a speech and drama teacher with over 20 years of experience and is one of the people behind StoryLand SL, an online speech and drama programme that connects with children through storytelling and explores the beauty of language and storytelling. 

Brunch caught up with Mokshini for a chat on her life and work, how her work with speech and drama impacts her work as a lawyer, the kind of changes we can one day hope to see made to our marriage laws, and her experiences as a lawyer in the 21st Century. 

 

Q: What got you into law as a profession and how would you define yourself as a lawyer? 

 

I am told that I was a very vivacious and opinionated youngster. I grew up with two brothers, one older and one younger, and I had to learn very quickly how to survive in that kind of environment. Because I wasn’t physically their equal, I had to challenge them in every other way, and I grew up to be very opinionated and again, I am told, very argumentative. 

I come from a family of lawyers. My grandfather was a well-reputed land lawyer who once served as Minister of Justice under Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and my uncle and aunt are also lawyers. For many people, it was a given that I would take to law, both because of my background and my personality (being opinionated and a debater in school), but I was also a bit of a rebel, and I resisted the idea because I didn’t want to pick a career simply because that’s what people said I should be. 

After my Advanced Levels (A/Ls) though, when I was looking at various options and fields of study, I realised that the study of law is very intriguing and that I am skilled and I can speak. I also have a strong passion to help and serve people, partly because growing up Christian, the concept of “service” and giving of oneself for others was a value deeply instilled within me and, even today, it motivates a lot of what I strive to do. So after a while, I succumbed to law, and now I would have to call it my calling. No matter how many times I’ve considered other careers, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is where I’m meant to be. 

Q: You’re also a drama teacher, and one of the people behind StoryLand SL. Tell us more about this and how it came about.

I’ve been teaching speech and drama for more than 20 years. I teach kids ranging in age from four to 24. I love everything to do with theatre and drama, and honestly, engaging with kids is a great outlet that keeps me sane. I feel they help me more than I help them. 

Last year, with the onset of Covid-19, physical teaching came to a standstill because of the restrictions in force, and quite randomly, I got on a call with a friend of mine, Kavitha Gunesekera, who I had worked with before on productions for the stage. We meant to pick each other’s brains on how to continue our own independent classes, but one thing led to another, and we got to talking about how parents are struggling to keep their kids – who are now stuck at home with no school and learning – engaged, and thought about using the medium of stories and an animated storytime to help these kids. That was what led to us setting up what we now call StoryLand SL. 

StorlyLand SL helps children with enhancing their language and communication skills, and also tries to nurture a sense of empathy, learning to understand emotions, and learning to interact with society at large. We’ve also got lots of authors getting involved, and have held “meet the author” sessions where we introduce local authors and their work to our followers and help local authors get more publicity for their work. It’s been a very rewarding experience. 

Q: How has your interest and practice in speech and drama helped you as a lawyer and vice versa? 

Sitting for my Trinity College London exams in speech and drama and presenting to a foreign examiner was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences. I was forced to learn how to function under pressure, and that experience has helped me a great deal in court, which is also a very high-pressure, high-stakes environment where I have to think quickly on my feet and hold my own. The training I received in communication has helped me to become a more effective communicator in the courtroom. Even in the district courts where I have to communicate in Sinhala, this ability to communicate really helps me, regardless of the language I am communicating in. 

Speech and drama has helped me more as a lawyer than the other way round, but as a lawyer, you come face to face with a lot of ugliness, so when I’m teaching my kids, I try to help teach little lessons on how to face difficult situations through the work I do. It’s not a huge aspect of my teaching, but I always have it at the back of my mind, and my experiences as a lawyer help me improve and enhance my lessons. 

Q: You are convenor of an advisory committee looking into making changes to Sri Lanka’s marriage and divorce laws. Tell us about what you’re doing and the changes you’re hoping to see.

The Minister of Justice under the incumbent administration, Ali Sabry took on a massive law reform when he took over as Minister. He consulted with lawyers and the general public on the various areas of law that needed drastic change to be brought on par with the current realities and issues that people are facing in society. One of the committees he formed was one that ran the entire ambit of civil law, a huge area, and I am a member of that committee. As an extension of that, under the area of family law, an advisory committee was formed, and because of my work in family law and my passion for it, I was appointed convenor of that committee a committee of leading practitioners, academics, and lawyers work with women and children to look into reform of matrimonial laws in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka’s current matrimonial laws are laws that the British introduced and have not undergone any changes since the early 20th Century. They are purely based on matrimonial fault, so no one can go to court and get a divorce unless they establish matrimonial fault on one spouse. This leads to a lot of acrimony, even when couples part amicably, because one has to take fault for it, and this leads to a great deal of bitterness, finding evidence against the other person and painting them in a worse light to give you a better chance of winning the case. When children are involved, this can be very harmful for them psychologically. English law and many others have since moved on and embraced the concept of irretrievable breakdown of a marriage as grounds for divorce. 

We have, after a great deal of research, proposed that Sri Lanka does away with the fault-based divorce and embrace irretrievable breakdown. 

Another vital thing the committee proposes is prioritising the best interest and welfare of the child, and this has been crystallised in guidelines and a schedule on what to take into consideration when defining what is the best for the child. We’re very thrilled to be able to propose this and have got observations and comments from a leading child psychologist when formulating this. We’ve made our proposals and now have to wait and see. We hope the proposals will come to light and be passed into law as soon as possible. 

Q: You are a self-employed litigator, and the legal profession can be something of a boys’ club. Looking back at your experience in the legal profession, how would you say this has changed in the 21st Century and what do you think needs to happen for it to be a level playing field? 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a boys’ club, but yes, there are difficulties that women face in the practice, which are intrinsic to the nature of the job – from the very challenging hours to the nature of the work and the commitment required to the work. Having said that, over that layer of difficulty, there is a further layer that stems from women being excluded from the practice of law at the outset and only being allowed to enter the profession in 1933. A lot of what is considered to be a good lawyer is dominated by what a man can and cannot do. So, no matter how good you are, there is always a doubt in the minds of the public of “how good is she?”, and it will always be more difficult to be retained or hired as a female litigator because of the misconception that men are better, which is a fallacy. 

What is interesting is that more women are joining the profession now, and more women are choosing to occupy spaces that were not previously occupied by women because of the challenges they faced from society and in their personal lives because they were women. More and more women are deciding that they are refusing to accept this narrative, and much needs to be said about the women who came before us and who really stood their ground and were relentless in pursuing their goals despite the harsh environment that they found themselves in. Today, we have them to look up to as role models, and because they did it, we are able to say that we can do it too. 

Men are more supportive of their female colleagues in the legal profession than they were 20 years ago. There’s definitely still a long way to go, but I must say that there are lots of good things taking place and more women are also questioning the status quo and this simple act is also an act of defiance because by asking questions, you are forcing others to question the system themselves and find that all these concepts are completely ill-founded and that more needs to be done to facilitate great participation. 

I have found that because of our unique skill set, women are able to benefit their litigants a great deal by being sensitive to the issue and understanding and empathising with their litigants. It is a strength, not a weakness, and the country would be better off having more women, not just in all forms of law, and also in sectors beyond the legal profession.  For there to be a level playing field, there needs to be a paradigm shift, not just among men, but among women, and not just among lawyers, but in the general public as well. 

Q: What inspires you outside law and speech and drama? 

I read a fair amount of biographies and autobiographies and I watch a lot of documentaries and biopics. I try to draw parallels between what those people went through and what I’m going through. One person I admire a lot was Martin Luther King Jr. His biography was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve ever engaged in. I also love music because it helps me make sense of the world and the things I’m going through. 

I am most inspired by those who have gone before me and trying to understand why they did what they did and how.