Notes from the Field

From East Timor: Delivering Legal Aid

August 22, 2007

In East Timor, the justice sector’s slow development, a largely remote and poor population, and multiple questions surrounding the new laws born from independence in 2002 have severely hampered everyday Timorese citizens from resolving their disputes. Left unresolved, disputes regarding land, divorce, robbery, minor injuries, and gender- based violence can spark violent conflict in communities, leading to more instability for this young country.

In early 2003, the National Mobile Legal Aid Network was launched. The program has aimed to enable Timorese legal aid NGOs to assist disadvantaged citizens in resolving their disputes through either court litigation and alternative dispute resolution in cooperation with local authorities. Since 2003, nearly 2,500 poor people in remote areas (28% women) have been assisted in resolving both criminal and civil disputes. An increase in women lawyers in the Timorese legal aid NGOs helps to encourage women to seek needed legal assistance.

The program, supported by The Asia Foundation, receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Due to a limited number of public defenders and the courts’ irregular operation, the Foundation’s legal aid partners handle many cases through mediation. Mediation has proven to be effective with land and property disputes, which dominate every region of East Timor. Traditional leaders have intimate knowledge of their communities’ history of land ownership. Utilizing traditional mechanisms and elders’ influence in rural areas, the legal aid program works closely with them in finding solutions for community disputes.

Visits to villages and sub-villages in remote areas of all East Timor’s 13 districts by the network’s legal aid partners also serve the purpose of educating communities about their options for resolving disputes either informally or through the courts. Legal aid partners — often the only source of legal information for remote communities — also provide updated information on new laws, human rights provisions in the Constitution, and the laws ensuring that traditional procedures are respected.

A Timorese woman summed up her experience with the Mobile Legal Aid Network as this: “I know my rights. The meaning of a right for me is something that I have and other people cannot take from me.”

Tiago Sarmento is the Law Program Officer for The Asia Foundation in East Timor.

View all posts by Tiago Sarmento

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