Mobile Legal Documentation Clinics – helping Sri Lankans to put their lives back on track


A marriage certificate is handed over by the government official during a documentation service in Trincomalee District, Sri Lanka 2012.

As a former child soldier with the LTTE, Kanthi’s dream of being able to return to school recently came true when a mobile documentation service in her area issued her with a replacement birth certificate, a document critical for school admission and exam enrollment. Meanwhile, neighbours in her village, Raman and Sidhamani, were able to register their marriage after 40 years, an important step to facilitate inheritance claims one day in the future.

Highlights

  • Since 2004, mobile documentation clinics have enabled over 175,000 people to address their documentation needs
  • Since 2009, the Equal Access to Justice Project has spent US$784,871 on documentation services, which enabled 142,000 people to apply for documents and over 2 million documents to be scanned and digitalized.
  • 720 children born as refugees in India have received citizenship papers

Kanthi and her neighbours are not alone. Thousands of Sri Lankans saw their basic documents washed away or damaged by the December 2004 tsunami and thousands more in the regions affected by conflict, either never had these critical papers or left them behind as they hurriedly fled their homes during the peak of the fighting.

Basic legal documents are vital assets for any individual living in Sri Lanka. The absence of birth certificates hampers access to education, without death certificates surviving relatives cannot access inheritance and pension benefits, without marriage certificates spouses’ rights and interests are vulnerable and without National Identity Cards, people find it difficult to open bank accounts, enroll in employment, vote and access many other services.

Since 2004 to date, UNDP’s Equal Access to Justice has supported over 175,000 people to apply for legal documents through mobile documentation clinics. Having first been conducted post tsunami, these clinics have, over the years, developed into streamlined and efficient ‘one-stop shop’ service centres that provide quick, easy and free access to documents. The mobile clinics usually operate on weekends, so as to maximize the chance that people can attend, and they typically take over a public building such as a school or government office, and bring together government officers from over a dozen departments. Rather than having to make several trips into the District town or capital to meet different officials, a person attending the clinic can do everything from reporting a lost document to the police, to having photographs taken for an ID card, receiving support for completion of often complicated application forms, having their personal details verified by the head of their village, and submitting the paperwork for processing. In some cases the documents can be issued on the same day, while others require processing in Colombo and are thus distributed several weeks later. The streamlined process not only reduces opportunities for bribes and malpractice, but also enables several thousand people to make applications in one day. During 2012 alone, between January and October, over 31,000 people have made applications for documents through the mobile services.

In recent years, UNDP has also supported a series of highly specialized clinics focused on facilitating Sri Lankan refugee families returning from India to obtain citizenship for their children born overseas. Citizenship is necessary for entry into school, and later in life for obtaining a National Identity Card, yet the complex nature of the application process and related travel and legal costs, means it is often the greatest hurdle faced by these families. Since 2008, UNDP has enabled 720 children to receive their papers through these clinics, and the relief felt by the families is best described by Padmini, a mother of four, “Today all 4 of my children are getting their Citizenship Certificates, it’s a relief for me as I did not know if this day will actually come and was unsure what we would do. When I got the message to attend today’s function, I was relieved that they will finally be able to go to school.”

Looking forward, while the Government is keen to address all the unmet documentation needs across the country, they are also keen to put in place a more sustainable system whereby every day needs can be easily met through regular delivery channels, therefore eventually negating the need for logistically intense UNDP supported mobile clinics. As such, for the last 18 months, with funding support from its traditional documentation partners, including Germany, UNHCR and the Human Security Trust Fund, funded by the Government of Japan, UNDP has been supporting the Government to improve regular access to documentation services. Key initiatives have included establishing regional service hubs for issuance of National Identity Cards as a way of reducing the pressure on the central processing facility in Colombo, and digitalizing birth, death and marriage certificate records kept at the local level, thus enabling much faster issuance of lost documents. The hope is that these reinforcements will gradually enable UNDP to scale back the mobile services during 2013.