Notes from the Field

Asia’s Newest State Builds Legal Education, Expertise

March 30, 2011

Legal professionals are indispensable for the rule of law; they draft laws, shape government policy, ensure compliance with legitimate rules and regulations, and inculcate respect for individual rights. Education dramatically affects a lawyer’s performance, how law is disseminated to society, and, perhaps most importantly, individual and organizational behavioral norms. Construction and maintenance of democratic institutions requires sound knowledge and consistent access to the law. Nowhere is this more true than in Timor-Leste, Asia’s newest state.

During its decade of independence, Timor-Leste has made significant strides in university education. The growth of domestic educational institutions and the recent passage of the organizational law of the National University in October 2010 support this claim. Nevertheless, there are still no legal texts focused on the laws of Timor-Leste. And professors remain dependent on foreign law texts, primarily from Portugal or Indonesia.

Timor daily life

Above, a local shop seller in Timor-Leste's Emera district. The National University of Timor-Leste, the nation’s only state university, officially teaches law exclusively in Portuguese – one of Timor-Leste’s two official languages. But Portuguese is understood by less than 10 percent of the population. Photo by Conor Ashleigh.

Prior to independence, Timor-Leste possessed scant legal education infrastructure, and the few East Timorese who did obtain legal education primarily did so at universities elsewhere in Indonesia. When the country achieved independence, it lacked an established legal learning center within its borders. Since then, the limited legal education institutions have been constructed from scratch and remain in nascent stages. The National University of Timor-Leste, the nation’s only state university, officially teaches law exclusively in Portuguese – one of Timor-Leste’s two official languages. But Portuguese is understood by less than 10 percent of the population. Tetum, the official language spoken by the vast majority of the population, is still developing the sophisticated legal terminology required for an effective modern justice system. Perhaps most strikingly, no textbooks currently address the laws of Timor-Leste in either official language. That, however, is beginning to change.

Launched under the broader Access to Justice Program in March 2010, the Timor-Leste Legal Education Project (TLLEP) is a partnership between The Asia Foundation and Stanford University Law School, funded by USAID. TLLEP provides accessible, dynamic educational textbooks to help build knowledge in Timorese universities, government institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Written in clear, concise prose, the text draws on hypotheticals, discussion questions, and current events to make it accessible to the broadest possible audience. Asia Foundation experts provide local knowledge and background research, while Stanford students participating in TLLEP as part of the Rule of Law Program take the lead on drafting the materials reflecting local priorities that are then thoroughly vetted by civil law experts and local stakeholders, including NGOs, private lawyers, justice sector officials, and prominent legal scholars.

After extensive consultations, the project initially decided to focus on the professional responsibilities, or ethics, of the legal profession, on the recommendation of a number of individuals and organizations, including the President of the Court of Appeals Claudio Ximenes, UNTL professors and administrators, justice sector officials, and legal aid lawyers.

A comprehensive draft textbook that examines relevant law in clear, accessible format to reach the broadest possible audience has been completed and was translated into Portuguese and Tetum in October 2010. The draft is currently being updated to reflect constructive feedback from national and international reviewers. The final draft is scheduled for a summer 2011 release. The text will be printed and distributed free of charge to universities, NGOs, private lawyers, magistrates, government lawyers, civil servants, and international organizations, and will be updated periodically with the latest edition available online.

The project’s transformative potential is already apparent. For example, Dr. Tome Xavier Geronimo, UNTL’s Law Faculty dean, has observed that these materials promote understanding and ethical behavior within an institutional context so that students and professionals alike understand their roles clearly and act in accordance with the law in those roles.

In the long-term, TLLEP seeks to institutionalize ways for educators and activists alike to positively influence the development of legal education in Timor-Leste. In light of the program’s success, the number of Stanford participants has already risen from three to 14 in less than a year. Students have already started drafting texts addressing civics and contracts under Timorese law.

A Stanford law student works with UNTL law students to review the draft professional responsibility text during their visit to Timor in October 2010.

TLLEP recognizes that lasting success hinges on a reciprocal flow of information and ideas. In September 2010, Stanford students traveled to Timor-Leste to further integrate the local legal context into the educational materials, with additional visits planned for 2011 to meet with key actors inside and outside the justice sector as well as to gain first-hand information about education in Timor-Leste. Similar plans are underway to send a delegation of Timorese legal academics to visit Stanford.

Strengthening legal education takes time. Yet, positive change is clearly visible on the horizon. Citizens will soon have ready access to a clear, concise text explaining the rights and responsibilities of magistrates, prosecutors, public defenders, civil servants, and private lawyers. The textbooks are already being explored for use in continuing education or judicial training to help current professionals. As Lino Lopes, director of Fundasaun Edukasaun Comunidade Matebian (which provides free legal aid services in Baucau, Manatuto, Lautem, and Viqueque districts) explains, “Texts in Tetum are very important for legal aid lawyers to understand their role in enforcing the laws, as well as allowing ECM and other legal aid lawyers to better uphold individual rights through both courts and community education.”

While much work needs to be done, the texts have the potential to spur a virtuous cycle by giving the Timorese people the means to empower themselves in both official languages. When people understand their laws, they can make the law work as a tool for a more just society. And when misconduct occurs, government or civil society can step in to help ensure the law is upheld.

Geoffrey Swenson is The Asia Foundation’s legal adviser in Timor-Leste. He can be reached at gswenson@asiafound.org.

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