Insights and Analysis

Study Released: Mapping Legal Aid in Sri Lanka

March 25, 2009

By Nilan Fernando

In Sri Lanka, legal aid is implicitly recognized as a fundamental right of all citizens under the constitution. Both the governmental and non-governmental sectors are committed to common goals for legal aid service delivery, service providers operate independently, and beneficiaries indicate a high level of satisfaction with services provided to them, according to a study released by The Asia Foundation. However, the study also determined that rapid expansion of legal aid services has led to a lack of coordination among service providers, and it calls for a national strategy on legal aid that puts social empowerment and financial and institutional sustainability at its core.

The Legal Aid Sector in Sri Lanka: Searching for Sustainable Solutions provides a comprehensive map of Sri Lanka’s legal aid system. The report findings identify gaps in services and challenges, discuss the opportunities available for sustainable legal aid services, and propose recommendations for an improved legal aid system that is accessible to all.

In Sri Lanka, most legal aid services are delivered free to low-income clients and other priority target groups, and cover a wide range of legal problems, including family disputes, money matters, land issues, violence against women, and fundamental human rights. The study shows that legal aid beneficiaries respond positively to the services they receive, including legal advice and counseling, referrals to other specialized organizations, and representation in court.

The study highlights a number of challenges that must be addressed for legal aid to reach its full potential in Sri Lanka. For example, while geographic coverage is widespread in principle, services are concentrated in urban areas; more effort must be made to reach out to clients in rural areas. These gaps leave vulnerable groups, including internally displaced persons, rural women, women affected by violence, and people directly affected by the ongoing conflict, underserved.

The report also evaluates commonly-used client eligibility criteria to ensure that needy clients are not being denied services. Currently, the bulk of legal aid cases are related to family disputes, reflecting client demand, but more attention should be given to fundamental rights cases, the study found. Additionally, given the large number of legal aid cases that are settled out of court, more formal linkages should be made between legal aid services and alternative dispute resolution. Local government officials, the police, and judges should play a greater role in referrals.

The survey and research reveal a number of positive attributes of legal aid in Sri Lanka that provides a strong foundation for future reforms. The legislative framework for legal aid is strong, and service providers are committed, motivated, and well-known within their communities. The recommendations listed in this pioneering study will contribute to the progress already being made and guarantee legal aid services are delivered to vulnerable, marginalized Sri Lankans.

The study was jointly undertaken by The Asia Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with guidance and support from the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration and the Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms. Asia Foundation and UNDP staff authored the study. The full findings and report, The Legal Aid Sector in Sri Lanka: Searching for Sustainable Solutions is available on our website, as well as a summarized Policy Brief of the report.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Sri Lanka
Related programs: Law and Justice

1 Comment

  1. Dear Sir,

    We do require a Legal Aid provider for an important sensitive case, since the suspects are convicted by all. But we believe “rehabilitation” is possible without damage to social structure.

    Appreciate positive response


    A. Mohammed Farook

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