Country Profile: Sri Lanka

This Country Profile provides a basic overview of the legal history and institutional structures of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Shri Lanka Prajatantrika Samajavadi Janarajaya/Ilankai Jananayaka Choshalichak Kutiyarachu), based on research produced by GlobaLex at NYU Law School and the Library of Congress. Under Sri Lanka's Constitution, Islamic law (sharīʿa or fiqh) has some legal status. 

Country Background

Sri Lanka is an island country located in South Asia in the Indian Ocean, south of India. The commercial capital of capital of Sri Lanka is Colombo, while the administrative capital is Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. The country's population in 2017 was approximately 22.4 million. The official religion of Sri Lanka is Buddhism. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, with about 70% of the population Buddhist. Islam is a minority religion in Sri Lanka, and Muslims make up about 10% of the country's population. Sri Lanka requested observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 2008. At present, Sri Lanka is one of two South Asian countries with a "high" rating on the Human Development Index (the other country being the Maldives).

During the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009), the separatist militant organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) opposing the Sri Lankan government targeted Sri Lankan Muslims. Over the course of the 26 year conflict, thousands of Muslims died and hundreds of thousands of more were forcibly expelled by the LTTE in their bid to make northern Sri Lanka into a mono-ethnic Tamil state. While the ex-LTTE leader has since formally apologized for the program, the effects of the LTTE's actions are still strongly felt by Sri Lankan Muslims and many continue to harbor feelings of bitterness. Since the ceasefire in 2009, Muslims have slowly begun to return to northern Sri Lanka, reopening businesses and schools and rebuilding their homes and property. 

Constitution & Legal Structure

After gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka has had a total of three different constitutions—one under the umbrella of the British Commonwealth and two that established Sri Lanka as an independent republic. Sri Lanka is referred to as a presidential republic. The government of Sri Lanka is led by the president of the country who is the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The system of government is based on principles of separation and checks and balances and has three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. The current Constitution (adopted in 1978) gives sovereignty to the people and establishes the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. Since its adoption, the Sri Lankan Constitution has been amended nineteen times, most recently in 2015 to re-establish presidential term limits.

The legal system of Sri Lanka is a complex mixed legal system that incorporates five systems of law: 

  1. Roman Dutch law: civil law code; acts as the general law of the land
  2. English common law: applicable to commercial contracts and commercial property, also accepted in other matters; introduced as a statute and as such, forms the statutory law of the land
  3. Thesvalamai: Jaffna Tamil customary law; applicable in matters of personal status and at the local level for the Tamil population
  4. Kandyan Law: Kandyan Sinhalese caste system, customary law; applicable in matters of personal status and at the local level for Kandyan Sinhalese population
  5. Islamic Law: applicable to matters of personal status and at the local level for the Muslim population, particularly in matters relating to marriage, divorce, and inheritance

Constitutional Status of Islamic Law

The official religion of Sri Lanka is Buddhism. As such, Islamic law has no constitutional status in Sri Lanka. However, Islamic law is applicable in matters of personal status and at the local level for Sri Lanka's Muslim population. Although not a part of the Constitution, Islamic law principles have been codified in the Act No. 13 of 1951 Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act, Act No. 10 of 1931 Muslim Intestate Succession Ordinance, and Act No. 51 of 1956 Muslim Mosques and Charitable Trusts/Wakfs Act.

Jurisdiction(s) of Islamic Law

Regarding matters of personal status, Islamic law has official jurisdiction in Sri Lanka at the local level for the country's Muslim population. 

Dominant School of Islamic Law

Sri Lanka has no official school of Islamic law. The vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims are Sunnī. The Shāfiʿī school is the most common. 

Sources of Law for Legal Research

Official Publications

Unofficial Databases


For an extended list of legal resources for this country, see the Library of Congress’s Research Guide, and for a narrative review, see the GlobaLex Foreign Law Research Guide (most updated version, where available). The Constitution is available in the LOC Guide in its original language and at Constitute in English translation. For full versions of past constitutions, amendments, and related legislation, see HeinOnline World Constitutions Illustrated or Oxford Constitutions of the World [subscription required for each].