Public officials not expected to carry out irregular orders Even if given in writing

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By 2017-09-12

By R.M.B Senanayake Retd CCS

I refer to the judgment against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita. It reaffirmed the longstanding principle that public officers who carry out irregular and unlawful orders given by their Ministers cannot plead superior orders, but must accept personal responsibility for such misdemeanours.

In this case, the two public officials did not benefit personally and merely carried out orders given by the Minister.

When I was a senior public officer, I was asked by an important and strong headed Minister to reinstate a certain employee, whom I had sacked from the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE). The Minister was a strong personality and had an unimpeachable character, but he was disposed to help his loyal supporter. He said he would order me in writing to reinstate him. I told him he would have to order the Board of Directors to do so and that I might then have to give up my secondment as the General Manager as I had personally made the dismissal order. The Minister did send a written order and the person was taken back and I was transferred to Vavuniya as a Government Agent.

Public officials are not expected to carry out irregular orders of Ministers even if they are given in writing. So, the recent judgment against Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Palpita merely restate the position. They have stated that they acted on the orders of the Minister which is not an acceptable excuse.

But what about the Minister who gave the order? Should he be allowed to go scot-free? It is manifestly unfair and unjust to allow the principal offender to go scot-free and punish only those who aided and abetted him by carrying it out. This is the weakness in our system of governance today. How and when do we change it? We must certainly change it and hold the Minister responsible as the principal with the public officials as accessories aiding and abetting him.

Under the British tradition of governance, the Ministers were originally expected to take responsibility even for the lapses of their subordinate public officials, but now they give irregular orders and escape scot-free when the irregularities are committed on their direct orders, completely reversing the position. It is necessary to bring in legislation if necessary holding ministers personally liable for lapses and irregularities committed under their knowledge and direction. I think they are liable under the law even as it is, but if there is a doubt let new legislation be brought in to make the position clear. Can't the Attorney General file action now against the minister in Court in addition to the public officials where there is evidence that the minister gave the order.




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