Sri Lankans get access to justice through mobile clinics

Sri Lankans at a mobile legal aid clinic
Sri Lankans register for birth certificates and National Identiy Cards (NIC) at a mobile legal aid clinic. Photo: UNDP in Sri Lanka

Displaced due to conflict, 18-year old Manickarajah Sulochana, of Vavuniya in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, migrated to India in 1990, just after getting married. She had three children in India, but when she returned to Sri Lanka in 2010, she didn’t have documentation for her children.

“It was challenging for my children at this time because they didn’t have a Sri Lankan birth certificate or citizenship documents,” Sulochana said.

Highlights

  • Since 2008 an estimated 300,000 people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka have benefitted from legal documentation mobile clinics supported by UNDP.
  • An assessment conducted across 13 districts covered 42,000 households (152,976 people) to identify the extent of citizens having basic legal documents.
  • 15,724 individuals benefited from the legal documentation mobile clinics in 2014.

Without these documents, it was difficult enrolling them in school. She also feared for her children’s safety, as not having a valid National Identity Card (NIC) to ensure your identity could lead to unnecessary questioning or harassment by the military or police.

For an individual to fully belong to and be recognized in society they must have the most basic legal documentation to which they are entitled by law: the Birth Certificate and National Identity Card. Without the latter, for example, an individual is not permitted to exercise their right to vote, open a bank account, or register to obtain any other services.

Lack of proper legal documentation also prevents the integration of people into society and a sense of belonging. This in turn contributes to significant tensions within society, with those who are unable to gain access to basic national and legal services feeling as though they are treated unequally in society.

Due to various circumstances - a lack of awareness, mistrust in Government systems, or loss of documents due to conflict and/or natural disaster - there remains a number of Sri Lankans unable to access the simplest of services because they lack basic legal documents.  Since 2005, UNDP in Sri Lanka has provided legal documentation support in the conflict and disaster-affected provinces of North and East Sri Lanka through the Equal Access to Justice Project.  

To address immediate needs in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami and during and after the conflict in 2008, ‘one stop’ mobile clinics were established to provide legal documentation at the Divisional Secretariat level. The service brings together a number of government departments and institutions to directly engage with the people and support the process of issuing the required documentation and legal guidance.

Through a UNDP mobile clinic, Sulochana was able to obtain birth and citizenship certificates for her children, which enabled them to go to school and receive government benefits.  Years later, one son has left for the Middle East, after having obtained a passport with the necessary documents, and Sulochana is happy that all three, now aged 19, 21, and 23, are pursuing their dreams.

In 2012, the Sri Lankan government developed the National Policy Framework on Social Integration, which recognizes the lack of access to legal aid and legal documentation as a key factor preventing access to justice and leading to further exclusion of people who are already marginalized in society. With the support of UNDP, the Government then undertook an assessment across 13 districts to identify the extent of citizens who still lacked basic legal documents, covering 42,000 households comprising 152,976 people.

The assessment highlighted the districts of Ratnapura, Badulla and Nuwara-Eliya as the geographical areas of concern, areas of Estates comprised of people affected by low levels of income and education.  This population faces challenges in accessing services due to language barriers and the vast distances that have to be travelled.  As a result, these people were prevented from participating fully in the post-independence development process that took place in the country, which resulted in them lagging in terms of various indicators of economic and social development.

In direct response to these findings and as part of the UNDP supported Strengthening Law Enforcement, Access to Justice and Social Integration (SELAJSI) Programme initiated in late 2013, the on-going mobile clinics were extended to Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts.

Overall, 15,724 individuals benefited from the mobile clinics conducted in 2014. These beneficiaries were provided with legal documents and legal services such as birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, Elder and National Identity Cards, support for registration of new lands, legal aid support, and support to record the loss of NICs and lodge other reports with the police.

The mobile clinics also provided an invaluable opportunity for government officials to move as close to the people as possible in their locality, enabling direct engagement with the people and building better trust between government and citizens.

The mobile clinics planned for January -June 2015 aim to provide 5,000 more people ‘one stop’ services at the Divisional Secretariat level.

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