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Neediest Timorese face losing legal aid

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 28 Jun 2011 14:07 GMT
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BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Some of the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens of East Timor may find themselves without legal advisors to turn to in times of need unless amendments are made to the law for private lawyers, TrustLaw has learnt.

In mid-2008, East Timor passed a bill which requires private lawyers – including those working in legal aid organisations – to complete a two-year certification training programme by July 30, 2012.

However, the programme was not established till June 2010 and to date no one has completed it.

“After 30 July 2012, you cannot practice law anymore if you have not completed the training and there are civil and criminal implications if you practice illegally,” Lilian Dang, Asia Foundation’s legal training officer in East Timor, told TrustLaw.

Asia Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) promoting peace and justice in Asia-Pacific region, has been supporting legal aid organisations in four district court jurisdictions since 2003, including Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP).

The biggest concern is the deadline, said Luis de Oliveira Sampaio, executive director of JSMP, an NGO that gives independent information on East Timor and Indonesia’s judicial system.

He told TrustLaw there is confusion over the interpretation of Article 68, which provides a four-year transitional period for lawyers to complete the training as of the law’s publication date.

The 2012 deadline remains, despite the training’s late start that halved the transitional period. This could lead to a decrease in the number of practising lawyers in a state where there are already not enough. It is estimated there are only about 90 private lawyers and no notaries.

In April 2010, civil society members called for an extension of the transition period.

“The lawyers acknowledge there needs to be a law to regulate the training and qualification of lawyers but I think their concern is the practical reality of their work and lives,” Dang said.

This practical reality includes the location of the training, the language used, and the risk lawyers will abandon their legal aid work altogether for more lucrative positions once they complete the training.


Close to nine years after independence, East Timor’s justice system is still emerging and few people – especially those living in remote areas – are aware of or understand its workings, Asia Foundation’s 2008 Law and Justice Survey showed.

Legal aid organisations have filled the gap for the million Timorese spread out across the country, providing advice and assistance in representing people if they need to go to court for criminal defence or civil disputes.

They also make mobile team visits to rural and remote locations to provide information about the justice system, the role of the police, prosecutors and the court, said Dang.

“One of the most crucial things, especially for women lawyers, is they provide victim support service which means accompanying victim (of gender-based violence),” she added.

This involves getting medical checks, forensic evidence, taking them to a safe house, some form of counselling and monitoring the case as it goes through the generally lengthy prosecution process.

Gender-based violence is a major concern in East Timor. Domestic violence is reported to have risen steeply in 2010, civil society says, but only half the cases are taken before the court and just 2.5 percent has been processed.

Asia Foundation found attitudes have taken a turn for the worse. 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 said they felt this way.


The two-year training programme consists of a 15-month theoretical training in the capital, Dili, and a 9-month practical training. So far there have been two intakes – 14 lawyers last June and 40 this May, of which 12 are legal aid lawyers.

“Most of these lawyers live, work and have families in districts, so this means they will have to relocate to Dili, leave their organisations and families,” said Dang.

“These lawyers are not recent law graduates... so a mandatory requirement that is so lengthy is a significant burden.”

Removing a significant number of private lawyers from fully active legal practise will affect legal aid organisations that already struggle with modest budgets and human resource constraints.

It means loss of income too. One earner usually supports an entire family in Timor and the government’s subsidy of $250 per month, an increase from $200, may not be enough for the lawyers to bear their own living expenses in Dili, where costs are higher, and continue to look after their families.

In addition, the training is conducted in Portuguese, spoken by less than 10 percent of Timorese, and not in Tetum, which most people in the state are familiar with.

To address some of the concerns, Asia Foundation awarded scholarships in the form of living, study and family support allowance to 10 lawyers. The only condition is they must return to legal aid work.

“The response has been good, but not been as overwhelming as we had expected,” said Dang. "It may be that private lawyer trainees are carefully considering their options.”

In a country with a shortage of private lawyers across all sectors, the fear is not only whether legal aid lawyers will complete the training but also whether they will return.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)


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