F. J. & G. de Saram is the oldest law firm in Sri Lanka. The practice was commenced in 1841 by F. J. de Saram. Snr., the same year in which the overland emigration to California began by wagon trail. Melbourne in Australia was founded only six years before that. In Sri Lanka those were the early days of British rule; their conquest of the whole island was completed in 1818.
After the British captured the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka from the Dutch, in 1796, they accepted responsibility for the debt notes, known as Kredit Brieven, carrying 3% interest per annum issued by the Dutch regime. The firm held these for its clients until its redemption 91 years later.
The economy under the British was built on the plantation industry. The firm played a key role in the establishment and development of that industry. British planters turned the Island into what was referred to years later as ‘Lipton’s Tea Garden’ after the name of the founder of the famous company. He was a client of the firm. The firm also acted for other pioneering planters, road builders and for individuals such as Charles Hay Cameron who framed the Judicial Charter of 1833 and sat as the member of the Colebrook Commission which introduced the first Legislative Council of Sri Lanka of modern times.
The contribution the firm made to the development of the economy of Sri Lanka transcended to every other area as well. Establishment of banks followed the expansion of the plantation industry. The firm acted as the lawyers for most of these banks including the Mercantile Bank, the first bank established in Sri Lanka in 1854. Throughout its history, the firm has also played a major role in the development of the law of Sri Lanka. F. J. de Saram, Jnr., was a member of the Council of Legal Education. The Royal Commission on Banking appointed in 1936 recommended the establishment of an indigenous bank. Consequently the Bank of Ceylon Ordinance No. 53 of 1938 was promulgated. The legislation was drafted by the firm.
The Mortgage Commission appointed in 1945 recommended major changes to the common law. The firm represented the Commercial Banks Association of Ceylon which played a leading role before the Commission. In recent times the firm assisted in the restructuring of the electricity sector, in preparing legislation that established a public utilities regulator and the setting up of the regulatory framework for the electricity sector. A partner of the firm was a member of the Advisory Council which drafted the new Company Law of Sri Lanka.
The firm lobbied for and had a modern law enacted on arbitration. The firm played the key role in drafting this law and in setting up an Arbitration Centre affiliated to other international arbitration centres. Since the inception of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in the year 1895, the firm has acted and still acts for them, the premier mercantile body of Sri Lanka. In that capacity, the firm has represented the Chamber before many commissions appointed by the Government from time to time relating to commerce and the economy.
The firm acted as lawyers for the Colombo Brokers’ Association which operated the Colombo Stock Exchange in its nascent stage. After the stock exchange was regulated by legislation through the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka Act, the Firm advised the Colombo Stock Exchange on the framing of its rules including the rules enabling scripless trading of treasury bills and debt securities.
Since 1861, when company registration began in Sri Lanka, many family owned plantation businesses and partnerships were converted to limited liability companies. The firm attended to the incorporation of many such companies including the leading agency houses of the day that managed the major part of the then economy of Sri Lanka.
During the socialist era of Sri Lanka from the late fifties to the seventies of the twentieth century, the firm were the lawyers for most of the State owned Corporations that were set up by the Government to engage in business, industry and finance, such as the Ceylon Steel Corporation, State Distilleries Corporation, Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation, Janatha Estates Development Board and the Development Finance Corporation of Ceylon. The firm was also the lawyers for the universities that existed then.
As the years rolled by, the firm continuously added to its portfolio of clients many of the leading companies doing business in Sri Lanka. The pre-eminence enjoyed by the firm throughout its practice continues to this day. In the diversified economy of Sri Lanka today, the firm acts for one party or the other in most of the major commercial transactions. As Deshamanya H. L. de Silva, Presidents’ Counsel, the doyen of the Bar, stated in his Foreword to the book, F. J. & G. de Saram — 160 year Practice of a Law Firm in its Historical Setting,
‘But above everything else what was most noteworthy was their moral integrity and probity which inspired confidence and trust in all those who did business with them and for whom they acted. If we ask the question how this firm of lawyers succeeded in their collective endeavour - the answer surely is that the values and ideals, which the original founders of the firm fashioned for themselves, constituted a living tradition that was internalized and transmitted to succeeding generations of lawyers of the firm as a precious gift to the community, which they continue to serve. It is indeed a matter of admiration and pride to all Sri Lankans that the firm has preserved and maintained the noble traditions of its founders.’