The Friday Forum has consistently emphasized the importance of State institutions in ensuring citizens’ democratic rights and equality before the law. The Legal Aid Commission is one such institution – while not prominent in the public sphere – that performs the critical function of providing free legal services to the economically marginalized sections of our society. The Friday Forum reiterates the national importance of the Legal Aid Commission to ensure the rights of all citizens as well as its relevance for reconciliation in the post-war era and the reconstruction of legal infrastructure and judicial functions in particular in war-torn areas.
The right to a lawyer and to be heard through a lawyer, in criminal cases, is both a Constitutional right and a right provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007. The need for legal aid was recognized by Parliament when it passed the Legal Aid Act No. 27 of 1978, where it states: “The objects of the Commission shall be to operate throughout Sri Lanka an efficient Legal Aid Scheme to provide to deserving persons—legal advice; funds for the conduct of legal and other proceedings for and on behalf of such persons; the services of attorneys-at-law to represent them; such other assistance as may be necessary for the conduct of such proceedings.” In addition to such free litigation services, the Legal Aid Act provides the Commission with a broad mandate to provide other “legal assistance” to be made “easily accessible to deserving persons” and to develop legal aid educational programs and special programs.
Performing such functions of national importance requires adequate State funds to the Legal Aid Commission. The excuse of budget constraints is unacceptable; for example, in 2014 the allocation for the Legal Aid Commission was Rs.146 million, a mere one thousandth of allocation towards the Ministry of Ports and Highways amounting to Rs.145 billion. The bottom line is State priorities towards citizens’ rights and their equality before the law, which is critical to ensure the democratic fabric of our society.
Therefore, the State’s commitment to legal aid must improve as a matter of urgency; for a range of civil and criminal cases for the disadvantaged in our society. Too many aggrieved persons are unable to seek justice because of the high costs of litigation. That, in turn, gives rise to many social issues, including violence as people take the law into their own hands. Legal aid services to the people must improve all over the island as a matter of priority if the rule of law is to be protected. In particular, the need for improvement is acutely felt in war-torn areas.
In this context, recent news reports that the Legal Aid Centres in the North may be curtailed due to the winding up of donor funding in August 2015 is worrying. What lapses, if any, on the part of the Legal Aid Commission and the Ministry of Justice led to this situation? The Friday Forum calls on the Legal Aid Commissioners, the Minister of Justice and the Government to rectify this funding problem and ensure the maintenance of these Legal Aid Centres with State funds. It is vital that legal aid services to the North and the East, which were disrupted during the war, are now sustained with permanent staff. Furthermore, where possible, legal aid services should be expanded to support efforts of reconciliation and reconstruction.
The Friday Forum respects the indispensable role of many of our State institutions and values the work of individuals who carry out the related duties. The meaningful functioning of the Legal Aid Commission requires the commitment of the lawyers in their daily duties as much as the vision and leadership of the Legal Aid Commissioners and the Minister and officials of the Ministry of Justice. The Friday Forum in the spirit of keeping State institutions accountable to its citizens will continue to engage with the priorities and functioning of the Legal Aid Commission and other State institutions.
Professor Savitri Goonesekere