LEGAL AID FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS IN SRI LANKA

LEGAL AID FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS IN SRI LANKA

Women and girls in Sri Lanka face a multitude of problems, and unfortunately, are victims to various types of sexual crimes. This affects their economic, educational and political empowerment. 90% of women in Sri Lanka face sexual harassment on public transport, which is the highest recorded rate in South Asia. A study in 2018 conducted in 5 provinces showed that 1 in 3 female homicides were related to intimate partner violence. These statistics are just microcosmic illustrations of the many problems that women face. With Sri Lanka’s female population being 52%, it is vital that their rights are protected in order to ensure growth and prosperity within the country. Although certain measures have been taken in Sri Lanka to address these issues, many challenges still remain in ensuring the rights of women and girls are protected.

In order to address these issues, it is of course important that the relevant authorities take steps in ensuring that justice is served and their rights are recognised to eradicate violence against women and girls. The lack of awareness on legal aid is a reason behind the issues women face. Therefore, it is important that women and girls are aware of the law, their rights and where to seek help. This article seeks to provide information regarding the Legal Aid Commission of Sri Lanka, the services they offer and recommendations on how their services can be improved. 

How can the ‘Legal Aid Commission’ help?

The Legal Aid Commission (LAC) exists to provide legal assistance, awareness and consultation for those who lack knowledge on the law. This equips them with the required resources when faced with legal issues relating to matters such as the economy, finance, education etc. 

Article 12 (4) of the Constitution provides special provision for women, children or disabled persons, and the Legal Aid Commission ensures that measures are taken to provide this special care and assistance to these marginalized and vulnerable groups. With 84 centers islandwide, LAC provides its services in various provinces and sections across the country. 

Who can seek help?

The LAC provides its services with the objective of social empowerment and increasing access to legal aid for the disempowered, to enable them to stand up against injustice and abuse of power. Legal services are provided by the LAC to ‘deserving persons’. The term ‘deserving persons’ is not defined in the law. However, international tests are used by the LAC to interpret it, namely the ‘mean test’ and the ‘justice test’. 

The mean test requires that individuals seeking legal aid prove that they receive a monthly income of Rs. 25,000 or less by providing an income certificate given by the Grama Niladhari of the area. Where an individual’s income level exceeds Rs. 25,000 per month, the Director or Legal Officer has the authority and discretion to be flexible in providing them with legal aid. 

The justice test would be used in providing legal aid when the ambit of the litigation goes beyond the adjudication of personal disputes to affect a group or a wider class of persons. In this test, a person’s merits are considered. For example, a client’s history and financial status. However, this may depend on a case by case basis. 

The Legal Aid Commission provides legal counselling, legal representation in courts, and legal aid for all women and their children irrespective of their income level. Cases that are undertaken by the Legal Aid Commission are those in relation to maintenance, divorce/ custody, labour/ debt conciliation board, money recovery, accident, land, appeals/ writ, domestic violence/ victims of crime and fundamental rights. 

Awareness Programmes

The Legal Aid Commission has dedicated Legal Awareness Programmes and Clinics for target groups, including those for women and children. Currently, legal awareness programmes are available on the Daily News, Lankadeepa Neethiye Sarana and on TV and radio channels. 

The Legal Aid Commission also has special desks available for dealing with women’s rights and another dealing with children’s rights cases. These were established to counter injustices faced by women and children as well as to launch programmes on rights of women and children. The functions of the women and children’s rights desks are the following: 

  • Conducting awareness programmes to educate public and government officials on laws available to protect women and children,
  • To carry out research relating to child matters,
  • To appraise the government to revisit existing laws or enacted laws to improve child protection in Sri Lanka, and;
  • Coordinate with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Women and Children Bureau, National Child Protection Authority etc. 

Challenges in accessing legal aid  

Although the Legal Aid Commission has been successful in the provision of its services and programmes, there are certain challenges. Some of which are listed below: 

  1. Lack of awareness 

Although LAC has dedicated awareness programmes, there is limited legal aid access at the grassroots level. The awareness campaigns conducted do not appear to reach many local communities. This has resulted in people not being able to identify when their rights are violated, identify the legal issues, and lack information about access to legal aid service providers. 

  1. Limited access to legal aid 

The services provided by legal aid providers are concentrated in the towns. This does not reach severely marginalized people at lower levels who lack adequate resources to access legal aid. It was also found that access to legal aid services differ across different marginalized populations.  

  1. Limited support from relevant government officials 

In order to make legal aid more accessible, it is vital that government officials and law enforcement officers, such as the Grama Niladhari and police officers take a step towards supporting such initiatives. When marginalized groups face legal issues, their first point of contact is either the Grama Niladhari or police. The lack of guidance acts as a barrier for marginalized people to access legal aid.

Recommendations to improve legal aid 

Increasing legal awareness and access:

  • Introducing mobile legal aid clinics for better access
  • Encouraging community legal aid through the appointment of individual legal aid representatives 
  • Increasing community legal aid services through government officials and law enforcement officers
  • Conducting programmes at schools targeting community groups (teachers, principles, students etc.) 

Improving legal aid services:

  • Encouraging law graduates to engage in legal aid services 
  • Training more lawyers to provide better and advanced legal aid services 

Amongst many other improvements which the Legal Aid Commission can make in order to better their services, the above recommendations are ways in which the LAC can work towards its vision of providing equal access to all. Therefore, if the Legal Aid Commission improves its awareness programmes for marginalized groups and government officials and law enforcement officers extend their services to them, women and girls would have better awareness of their rights and access to legal aid services.

Article by Gnei Sumhiya Sallay

References: 

The views expressed on this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Hashtag Generation.

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