“By upholding integrity, the judiciary maintains public trust and confidence in the legal system, reinforcing that no one is above the law”

PATHWAYS TO JUSTICE - A conversation with Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane on Judicial Integrity

June 6, 2024

In an era of evolving legal landscapes and increasing public scrutiny, judicial integrity remains fundamental, ensuring fairness, impartiality, and trust in the justice system. To explore this vital topic, Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, former puisne justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, shares her insights on various aspects of judicial integrity, including the role of ethics, transparency, and Artificial Intelligence in fostering public trust and confidence in the judiciary. 


Justice Tilakawardane, your career has been marked by many firsts, including being the first female State Counsel in the history of Sri Lanka's Attorney General's Department, the first female High Court Judge, and the first female President of the Court of Appeal. 

From your experience, what constitutes judicial integrity and independence, especially for judges on the highest courts? 

A famous lawyer, referencing the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, once stated, “Judicial independence is the right enjoyed by people when they invoke the jurisdiction of the courts seeking and expecting justice. It is not a privilege accorded to the judiciary. It refers to the state of mind of the judiciary". 

I believe that integrity is the cornerstone of a just and equitable legal system, which ensures that judges make decisions based on the law and evidence, free from personal biases or external influences. Supporting judicial independence and integrity fundamentally involves upholding constitutional guarantees such as security of tenure, protection against vexatious litigation, and removal from office for misconduct or physical or mental impairment. 

Legal decisions must be transparent and open to public scrutiny. In my opinion, judges must ensure their decisions can be explained in terms that the public understands, maintaining the principle of open justice.

Twenty years after the implementation of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, the advent of the 4th Industrial Revolution compels us to address judicial integrity in the digital age. Specifically, judges' online activities, both personal and professional, can raise ethical issues and challenges that potentially erode public trust in the impartiality of the judicial system. Because such virtual interactions are visible to the public, they can lead to wariness and misgivings regarding the fairness and impartiality of judicial trials. Given the leadership role of judges in due process, this, in turn, can compromise and cloud the ethical perspective of all stakeholders in the administration of justice.


Do you have any specific examples of judicial integrity in action, and how does it translate into upholding the rule of law and ensuring public trust?

Throughout my career, I have consistently pushed the boundaries in matters pertaining to the Constitution, especially in Human Rights applications. One notable case is the Fundamental Rights Application I the Supreme Court nr. 209 of 2007, in which I addressed and circumscribed the powers of the Executive Presidency, stating that even the President did not have unfettered powers. 

In referring to the Constitution, I noted that 'All facets of this country, its land, economic opportunities, or assets, are to be handled and administered under the stringent limitations of the trusteeship posed by the Public Trust Doctrine and must be used in a manner for economic growth and always for the benefit of the entirety of the citizenry'.

In another significant judgment, I delivered a dissenting opinion against the reappointment of a public officer previously deemed unfit for public office by the Supreme Court due to extensive abuses of power and corrupt behaviour. Nonetheless, he was considered suitable to return to his position. While recognizing the President's authority to appoint public officials, I emphatically disagreed with my colleagues on the Bench, stating that unfettered discretion cannot exist where the rule of law reigns.

These cases demonstrate the judiciary's role in safeguarding against the abuse of power by other branches of government and ensuring that all governance actions, especially those involving public finance, adhere to the rule of law and the principles of responsible governance. By consistently upholding these principles, the judiciary maintains public trust and confidence in the legal system, reinforcing the notion that no one, not even the President, is above the law.

I have also championed gender equality and the representation of women in leadership. Despite facing personal setbacks due to gender biases, I have advocated for equal rights, dignity, and respect for women in the legal profession and beyond. 


As a champion for human rights who participated in drafting the guidelines for child victim and child witness testimony submitted to the United Nations for adoption in the International Criminal Court, what role do you believe the judiciary plays in ensuring these rights are upheld?

Judicial integrity guarantees that decisions affecting child victims and witnesses are made transparently and accountably, protecting their dignity, respect, and independence. The judiciary must uphold the principle of substantive equality for all, including vulnerable groups like child victims and witnesses, to protect their rights and freedoms against any form of discrimination or abuse. This is integral to fostering a just and equitable legal system where every individual's rights are recognized and upheld.

Moreover, legal actors must uphold the principle of substantive equality for all, guaranteeing that decisions are free from stereotypes based on religion, culture, or social constructs. Despite the legal principle of equality before the law, the reality is that women and children in Sri Lanka and the broader South Asian region face significant discrimination and violence with impunity, highlighting a pressing concern that requires urgent attention. In this context, courts and legal institutions must ensure representational inclusivity at all levels of power. This includes recognizing and integrating women's perspectives and experiences to address gender bias in decision-making processes.


According to the World Economic Forum, closing the gender gap could take 131 years. This means that many women and girls may not be able to fully utilize their abilities and talents for a considerable period, thereby detrimentally affecting societies.

In your opinion, how can the judiciary ensure equal access for women to leadership positions?

The principles outlined in the Bangalore Principles serve as a guide for the judiciary in addressing gender biases and stereotypes that hinder women's advancement. This involves actively recognizing and combating barriers to women's leadership roles, ensuring impartial decisions are based solely on legal principles and evidence.

In addition, with the increasing integration of AI in judicial procedures, it is imperative to involve women in the design and implementation of these systems to prevent discrimination.

Judicial and legal institutions must implement comprehensive diversity frameworks that create inclusive environments beyond mere tokenism, where women feel valued and respected. The judiciary should also take a firm stance against violence and discrimination against women, ensuring their equal representation and involvement in decisions concerning their security and dignity.

Lastly, empowering women through education and opportunities, including mentorship programs and policies supporting work-life balance, is vital to enable them to pursue leadership positions without facing undue obstacles.


What challenges did you encounter in supporting judicial integrity and promoting court excellence while serving? 

Preserving the independence of the judiciary was a constant concern, as external pressures from various stakeholders, including political entities and social influences, threatened to sway judicial decisions. 

The rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence poses new threats to judicial integrity, and the integration of AI in legal decision-making raises concerns about transparency and open justice. Specifically, the judiciary's inability to scrutinize proprietary AI systems undermined constitutional principles and the rule of law, as judges lacked the necessary tools to fully understand and evaluate these systems' processes. Establishing clear ethical guidelines for judges' social media use becomes necessary to maintain public trust in the justice system.

Overcoming gender biases within the judicial system and society remains an ongoing struggle. Addressing high levels of violence and discrimination against women requires confronting deep-seated patriarchal attitudes and cultural norms. The judiciary has to confront myths and stereotypes embedded in society and base decisions on principles of equality, non-discrimination, and human dignity. Combating public scepticism and misgivings about judicial impartiality and fairness will result in strengthened trust in the justice system. 

Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach, including strengthening judicial independence, adapting to technological advancements, promoting ethical conduct, and fostering a culture of equality and non-discrimination within the judicial system and society as a whole.


Following your contribution to drafting the Istanbul Declaration of Transparency in the Judicial Process, you have been an active member of the Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN, the UNDP initiative supporting judiciaries in the region to promote transparency, accountability and integrity. 

In the contemporary context, what is your perspective on how regional networks of justice actors can enable excellence within the courts?

In today's landscape, I believe regional networks of justice actors have the potential to enhance excellence within the court system. By cultivating principles of transparency, accountability, and integrity, these networks are well-positioned to enable a collaborative approach to tackling modern challenges such as the integration of AI and the persistence of gender biases. This joint effort is crucial for safeguarding the judiciary's role as a robust pillar upholding democracy and the rule of law.


As we embrace an increasingly digital landscape, including the use of AI in the legal field, how do you believe a modern judiciary can benefit and ensure integrity across all levels of the system?

I have serious concerns about the cybersphere in judicial processes. AI-driven tools offer various efficiencies, such as automated data entry, docketing, scheduling, and case processing, which can streamline judicial processes. However, AI's use in legal decision-making, predictive policing, and risk assessment must be approached with caution. These solutions should be transparent and open to public scrutiny to demonstrate their alignment with fundamental constitutional principles and human rights.

Moreover, the realm of digital innovations presents both fresh possibilities and obstacles, especially for women. A considerable gender gap exists in STEM disciplines, underscoring the importance of incorporating gender-sensitive approaches in developing technologies such as AI to prevent the reinforcement of biases. The presence of female leaders and data scientists is essential to protect against the marginalization of women and vulnerable groups in AI applications and outcomes.

The evolution of humankind has historically centered on a male perspective, often overlooking the contributions of women. As we advance into a digital era characterized by the convergence of AI, machine learning, and robotics, it is clear that including women in our ongoing historical narrative is key to fostering a digital world that benefits everyone.



Stefano Pighin, Communication and Partnerships Officer, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

Luying Wang, Communication Trainee, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub


The Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN is supported by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).



Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane currently serves as a Consultant to the Sri Lanka Judges Institute and holds roles as an International and National Arbitrator and an accredited Mediator with the Singapore International Mediation Institute. As a respected Judicial Educator, she consults globally for several organizations, including UNDP, UNODC, and ILO. Justice Tilakawardane contributes as an Expert Advisor and Panelist with Law Legal Action Worldwide. She is on the Advisory Board of the ASEAN Judicial Integrity Network and is the Deputy Chair of the Judicial Integrity Group, involved in amending the Bangalore Principles.

She was Sri Lanka's first female State Counsel in 1978 and achieved many firsts including becoming the first woman Justice of the Court of Appeal and the first female Supreme Court Justice. Justice Tilakawardane holds honorary doctorates from Smith College and Williams College and a diploma in Forensic Medicine from the University of Sri Lanka. Her accolades include the Sakshi of India Award, the International Zonta Award, and the Shakti Award. She has also contributed to drafting international legal guidelines and protocols, and lectures on advanced AI technologies.