Dili, July 9, 2009 — Rule of law in Timor-Leste remains in a state of transition since the country’s official declaration of independence and promulgation of its new Constitution in 2002. While there have been a range of notable achievements in the formal justice sector, serious challenges remain for maintaining peace and progress toward prosperity. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Timor-Leste’s justice sector by the government and international assistance programs, yet questions about the overall access to justice in Timor-Leste persist.
To evaluate progress in strengthening the rule of law, The Asia Foundation is releasing findings from its landmark opinion poll, “Law and Justice in Timor-Leste: A Survey of Citizen Awareness and Attitudes Regarding Law and Justice – 2008.” The report reveals that confidence in traditional justice mechanisms remains slightly higher (85%) than in the newer formal court system (76%), yet confidence overall in the justice sector has decreased. A copy of the survey can be accessed in its entirety on the Foundation’s website.
The Asia Foundation conducted the survey, its second nationwide perceptions poll in Timor-Leste on law and justice issues, between November and December 2008, and compared citizens’ perceptions of law and justice in 2008 to their perceptions in the 2004 survey. The two Asia Foundation surveys are the only records of their kind available for longitudinal comparison of the establishment of rule of law in Timor-Leste.
It is widely believed that coordinated government and international assistance efforts have improved citizens’ access to justice. Key findings from the survey indicate that the public has an aspiration for a greater presence of courts in their locality: 85 percent of the 2008 survey respondents say they would want an official from the formal court system to come to their area compared to 54 percent of respondents in the 2004 survey.
However, the results of the 2008 survey suggest that the formal legal frameworks of the state have not reached many. When asked the question, “Who is responsible for making the rules that govern people’s lives?” respondents say 2:1 that traditional leaders versus state institutions are responsible for making the rules.
Perhaps of greatest concern is that attitudes condoning domestic violence have worsened. In the 2004 survey, 75 percent of respondents said a man who hit his wife is categorically wrong. In the 2008 survey, only 34 percent felt this way.
“The survey gives policymakers insight into people’s perceptions about their options and obstacles for accessing justice in Timor-Leste, and we can’t progress as a country without knowing that,” says Fernanda Borges, a Member of Parliament and Chair of Parliament Committee A: Constitutional Affairs, Judiciary, Public Administration.
Since 2002, there have been notable achievements, such as increased training for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, as well as the establishment of a new court of appeals and four district courts. Yet these successes have been met by multiple challenges. Between 2003 and 2006, with the exception of Dili, the ability of the courts to function effectively was greatly undermined by social and political instability. Meanwhile, traditional justice mechanisms that have been in place for hundreds of years yet are not formally recognized in the legal system continue to operate alongside the formal legal system. The result has been a de-facto hybrid system.
With co-funding from the Justice Facility (a bilateral cooperation program between the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia) and the U.S. Agency for International Development, The Asia Foundation designed the survey to inform policymakers about progress in the justice sector and provide a basis for designing initiatives to increase citizens’ access to justice. Survey interviews and fieldwork were conducted by Insight Consulting, a local organization specializing in social science research.
The complete report and survey findings are available on The Asia Foundation’s website. Download a copy of “Law and Justice in Timor-Leste: A Survey of Citizen Awareness and Attitudes Regarding Law and Justice – 2008.”
The Asia Foundation has been programming in Timor-Leste since 1992 and established a permanent office in 2000. Read more about our current programming.
For more information or to arrange an interview with Silas Everett, Country Representative in Timor-Leste, please visit our Press Room.