Notes from the Field

Timor-Leste’s Legal Aid Organizations Face Uncertain Future

June 15, 2011

In Timor-Leste’s nascent formal justice sector, legal aid organizations play a key role in ensuring access to justice for the country’s most disadvantaged citizens. Located in remote corners of the country, legal aid organizations work in isolated communities that are still out of the reach of the formal justice sector. Legal aid organizations deliver free legal assistance to victims of gender-based violence, represent criminal defendants, and litigate or mediate civil disputes on behalf of those who can’t afford to pay for a private lawyer.

Timor-Leste

Bucao resident Louis Bello shows Lino Lopez, the director of the legal aid provider Fundasaun Edukasaun Comunidade Matebian (ECM), land that he claims was taken from his family during Indonesian rule. Photo by Conor Ashleigh.

However, this work on behalf of access to justice for Timor-Leste’s most disadvantaged citizens may soon come to an end. In 2008, Timor-Leste’s government passed a law that requires all private lawyers (including those who work in legal aid organizations) to complete a two-year certification training program to continue practicing. The deadline to complete this training is July 30, 2012. However, the training program was not established until June 2010 and, so far, no one has completed the training.

Since 2003, The Asia Foundation has supported five legal aid organizations across Timor-Leste that employ about 35 legal aid lawyers. These legal aid organizations operate in four district court jurisdictions: Dili, Baucau, Suai, and Oecusse. As the legal sector has largely been unregulated until now, legal aid organizations only required that lawyers possess law degrees. While lawyers recognize the importance of training and the need for a professional qualification process, the ambitious training requirements present a serious obstacle for many legal aid lawyers.

The first obstacle is distance. The certification training program is held in Dili at the national Legal Training Centre. Most legal aid lawyers live in the rural districts of the country and must travel a day or more over undeveloped roads to get to Dili. Travel from Oecusse requires a 12-hour ferry trip. In order to attend the full-time, two-year training, lawyers have no choice but to relocate to Dili. This means leaving their legal aid organizations and for some, their families behind in the districts. In Timor-Leste, where one family member often supports a large household that includes extended relatives, the loss of income will place a considerable burden on families. For women lawyers, such a move is made even more difficult by social and family pressure to remain within their traditional role as the primary caretaker of children and the household.

Even when a decision is made to attend the certification training program in Dili, lawyers have to pass an admission process, which can be grueling. To gain admission, prospective trainees must pass a series of written examinations and an oral examination before a selection panel. The admission process assumes an understanding of Timorese law and Portuguese language skills. For many Timorese, this alone has been a barrier to admission. Timor-Leste’s legal education infrastructure is still in its infancy. Many East Timorese receive their legal education from Indonesian universities. Only 7 percent of the population can speak Portuguese. As a result, law graduates have struggled to pass the admission process at the Legal Training Centre.

Timor Legal aid organization

Based in Baucau district, ECM covers the eastern districts of Timor-Leste. Four lawyers from ECM have been awarded financial scholarships by The Asia Foundation to attend the mandatory private lawyers' training at the national Legal Training Centre.

In the first admission round in June 2010, 16 trainees passed the selection examination out of 51 applicants, and only 14 were able to actually start the training. This included three lawyers from legal aid organizations, including the director of a Dili-based legal aid provider. A second group of 40 trainees started their training in May this year, nine of whom come from legal aid organizations.

Despite the fact that training will undoubtedly support the lawyers’ professional development, doing so will seriously impact the capacity of legal aid organizations, which already face increasing staff turnover and the constant need to retrain new legal staff.

Therefore, legal aid organizations face a dilemma – if they do not send their legal staff to attend the training, then they will face the prospect of their staff having not completed the training by the deadline, and thus, not legally qualified to practice law. On the other hand, the entry of legal aid lawyers into the Legal Training Centre will severely drain crucial management and legal capacity.

In response to this challenge, The Asia Foundation, through its USAID-funded Access to Justice Program, just launched a scholarship program to provide financial support to legal aid lawyers to complete the certification training program. Last week, the first scholarships were awarded to six new trainees, including four women. As a condition of the scholarship, recipients must return to work for a legal aid organization once they complete the training and qualify as private lawyers. Based on individual needs, scholarship recipients will receive allowances for living, study, and family support. Scholarship winners said they look forward to completing the course so that they can return to their legal aid work in their districts.

Alexandrina de Sousa Soares, a legal aid lawyer from Baucau district, explains, “I chose to be a legal aid lawyer in order to serve the community and help the most vulnerable people. I help people guarantee their rights, particularly vulnerable women.”

It is important to ensure that those committed to social justice, like Alexandrina de Sousa Soares, are able to continue to serve as private lawyers. These scholarships are a way of supporting and incentivizing lawyers to be able to return to legal aid work. In the end, Timor-Leste will benefit from a diverse legal profession that draws on individuals from different backgrounds.

Lillian Dang is The Asia Foundation’s legal training officer in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at ldang@asiafound.org.  The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available