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Handa Center Associates Co-Author Report on Justice in Timor-Leste

Wall that reads "we cry for justice" in maroon graffiti
Sep 7 2015

Posted In:

Research & Publications, Rule of Law and Accountability

A new report from Handa Center Director David Cohen and Adjunct Research Fellow Leigh-Ashley Lipscomb finds that Timor-Leste needs a radical overhaul of its judicial system, and there may be an opening now to push forward with reform.

Justice At the Crossroads in Timor-Leste, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), examines the fall-out from the controversial decision to expel international judges last year and the possibilities opened up by full “Timorisation” of the judiciary. The report’s detailed list of recommendations underscores the amount of work that needs to done, especially on professional training, access to justice, and meeting basic fair trial standards. A review of the judiciary now underway, mandated by parliament at the time of the 2014 expulsions, provides an opportunity to address what the report terms “the manifold ills of the justice sector”.

The report starts from the premise that ending dependence on international judicial personnel was an important pre-condition of reform.  “Despite fourteen years of international assistance and in some cases because of it, Timor-Leste’s justice sector is still in dire straits,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director.

The government-run Legal Training Center, responsible for producing judges, prosecutors and public defenders, needs to be thoroughly reorganised. It has failed to develop a program that can produce competent legal professionals.

Fairness of trials in Timor-Leste remains a serious concern, particularly in terms of rights of the accused. The prevalence of guilty pleas and the tendency of judges not to question confessions means there is little incentive to prepare cases effectively, and defence lawyers frequently call no witnesses.

The country still has no independent bar association, and the current system of registering to practice is so restrictive that very few private lawyers manage to meet the criteria, despite hundreds of law graduates being produced by local universities.

The country needs more courts, but there is no sign so far that plans for expansion include a detailed projection of needs based on hard data, including an analysis that will set standard caseload expectations for each branch of the justice system.

All this said, there is broad consensus across the government and political elite that major change is required. Judicial reform is part of a larger process of transition from an older generation of political leaders to a younger one. The question is whether both will have the political will to see the necessary reforms take place.

(Photo credit: By David Haigh/AusAid.)