Insights and Analysis

For Indonesians Who Can’t Afford a Lawyer, Justice Is Out of Reach

February 8, 2023

By Ajeng Wahyuni

“Dian” is a single mother of three from Makassar, South Sulawesi, who was charged with narcotics trafficking after she was tricked into acting as a drug courier. If she had been convicted, that would have been the end for her and her children. But representation by a pro bono lawyer helped her avoid prison and return to her family.

Many Indonesians are not so lucky. There are fewer than 600 civil society legal aid organizations in the entire country, and fewer than 100,000 registered advocates—loosely equivalent to attorneys. Few of these advocates offer their services pro bono. Given that there are more than 26 million Indonesians living below the national poverty line, there are simply not enough pro bono lawyers to go around.

The Constitutional Court of Indonesia. The Asia Foundation works with Indonesian bar associations to increase the availability of pro bono attorneys.

A study from the Indonesia Judicial Research Society (IJRS) and the Indonesian Court Monitoring Society (MaPPI) found that many private lawyers claimed that time constraints prevented them from offering their services pro bono. Even lawyers committed to pro bono work said that they lacked experience handling cases involving poor and marginalized populations, and had limited connections to civil society organizations and networks that could link them to pro bono clients.

Another longstanding obstacle is that bar associations have been unable to enforce a common set of standards and ethics that includes a professional obligation to provide a certain amount of pro bono work. Indonesia has never had a unified bar association, and its many independent bar associations have a long history of tension and competition that has discouraged a common pro bono culture. This tension has its roots in the efforts of the authoritarian New Order government (1966–1998) to control the legal profession.

Improving collaboration among bar associations is therefore a central component of efforts to encourage pro bono representation and expand access to justice in Indonesia. Since 2016, The Asia Foundation has worked with some of Indonesia’s most prominent bar associations, including the Indonesian Advocates Association (PERADI), Peradi-Voice of Indonesian Advocates (PERADI-SAI), the Congress of Indonesian Advocates (KAI), and the Association of Indonesian Advocates (AAI), to promote a pro bono culture.

The bar associations have developed pro bono guidelines, hosted pro bono conferences, held discussions with the government on incentives for pro bono work, implemented continuing legal education programs focusing on vulnerable groups, and learned from bar associations abroad.

A transgender Indonesian consults with her pro bono attorney. Bar associations working with The Asia Foundation have implemented continuing legal education programs focusing on vulnerable groups. (Photo: eMpowering Access to Justice / USAID)

One important reform has been the adoption of a digital database system to keep track of members’ activities. A database can be a simple, effective tool for promoting and enforcing pro bono obligations, but many of Indonesia’s bar associations were still operating paper-based registries that made tracking their membership difficult. If bar associations are to perform their role in monitoring and evaluating the pro bono practices of members, they must maintain a secure, efficient, and up-to-date database of member activities.

Recognizing that many databases were not fit for purpose, the Foundation worked with bar associations to develop a custom database called the Advocate Information System (SIA). SIA was built from scratch, beginning with a needs assessment, consultations with key stakeholders, development of technical specifications, and building a prototype. As the system was put into use, the data of more than 6,000 members had to be entered manually. Only when the data of all members was entered was the system ready for launch.

The benefits of this database are many. It is a cheap, easy, and effective way for member lawyers to update their data and receive membership services. It provides bar association committees (such as ethics, pro bono, and continuing education committees) with detailed information for formulating policy. And in a sector that has long been prone to internal tensions, it promotes accountability of bar association leaders to their membership.

Keeping the database working, however, requires a strong commitment from bar association leadership and continual efforts to encourage member lawyers to shift from paper-based to online record keeping. It took more than a year for the first 6,000 members to sign onto the new system. Regular communication between bar association committees and member lawyers is also crucial to ensure that members enjoy the benefits of the new system.

Bar associations plan to further refine the SIA’s reporting mechanisms to monitor members’ fulfillment of their pro bono and continuing education obligations. This will create opportunities for bar associations to adopt incentive programs to encourage more lawyers to meet their pro bono commitments.

Starting from a small base, Indonesia’s pro bono culture has made major strides in recent years. As more people like “Dian” learn of their rights to legal assistance, the demand for pro bono services will grow.

Pro bono legal aid should not be viewed simply as a service from the professional class. It is a movement. Ensuring the movement delivers for Indonesians will require ongoing commitment and coordination among bar associations, lawyers, law enforcement officials, the government, and the courts.

Ajeng Wahyuni is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Law and Justice Unit in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions presented here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Indonesia
Related programs: Good Governance, Law and Justice


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