By Geoffrey Swenson
This article was originally published at In Asia.
Law has little meaning when it is not widely understood. Concepts like “conflict of interest” or “integrity” are used repeatedly in theories and explanations of law, but they are not self-explanatory. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than in Timor-Leste, where rule of law is in the early stages of institutionalization and not well-understood by most citizens. And, until now, there were no legal texts focused on the laws of Timor-Leste. Professors were dependent on foreign law texts, primarily from Portugal or Indonesia.
Last month, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with Stanford Law School, the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL), and USAID, launched the new nation’s first law text focused on the laws of Timor-Leste in both official languages – Portuguese and Tetum – and the working language, English.
The launch of the text, An Introduction to Professional Responsibility in Timor-Leste, is a culmination of a two-year-long program, the Timor-Leste Legal Education Partnership (TLLEP), which aims to make Timor-Leste’s laws more broadly understood, clear, and equally binding to the governing and governed alike through texts that clarify existing law. It is the first in a series of texts, some of which are already completed in draft form. The texts explain legal concepts in clear, simple language (in local languages) with real-life examples that allow citizens to understand often-complex legal concepts, and give the next generation of leaders the tools to strengthen the rule of law. The content carefully analyzes the regulations of civil servants, public prosecutors, public defenders, magistrates, and private lawyers.
Over a hundred people attended the launch, including Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer and TLLEP’s faculty adviser at Stanford and Asia Foundation Senior Law and Governance Adviser Erik Jensen, as well as leading figures in academia, government, the legal profession, international organizations, and most of the currently enrolled law students from UNTL.
Dean Kramer’s keynote address seemed to resonate with the audience, in particular those involved in teaching law and guiding the overall development of the legal profession. He stressed that all lawyers, even private lawyers, as well as government officials have an inherent obligation to uphold the rule of law in a democratic society. He said it was the job of lawyers to improve society and he stressed that education in law school is particularly important as it could help instill democratic values in the students of today and, by extension, in the leaders of tomorrow.
Two years ago, Timor-Leste’s Court of Appeals president, Claudio Ximenes, suggested that the first volume in the text series focus on professional ethics. At the launch, Ximenes explained that the completed text enhanced the ability of judges, lawyers, and government officials to respect their constitutional and legislative mandates. He told the audience that the texts would be immensely helpful both in Dili and in the districts where access to the law is constrained by a lack of understanding. As part of the vetting process, the draft versions of the texts have in fact been used in class by UNTL professors for months. Professors have noted that the textbook works well in the classroom because they address important issues in a simple and clear way, enabling students to think critically about the ideas and concepts behind the law, not just memorize the text of the law.
The Asia Foundation, Stanford, and UNTL are together working to streamline cooperation in areas such as law texts, academic exchanges, and student internships at legal aid organizations. As UNTL Rector Aurelio Guterres observed, “textbooks on the laws of Timor-Leste in Portuguese and Tetum significantly build the capacity of students and the larger university.”
The partnership, which comes at a time of considerable growth for UNTL as it embarks on an ambitious multi-year expansion strategy, has lead to ongoing academic exchanges. Each year, Stanford Law students travel to Timor-Leste to support and develop the project, receive feedback on current and future texts, and integrate the local legal context into their research and writing. Two prominent UNTL law faculty members traveled to Stanford in May 2011 to observe U.S. legal education and provide guidance to TLLEP members.
Challenges remain, but the future of legal education in Timor-Leste looks promising. We have already started distributing the textbook widely to lawyers, government officials, NGOs, students, professors, and international organizations. The finalized Professional Responsibility book is just the first in a series that also includes draft texts on Civics and Contracts currently undergoing review. All of the texts in the series will be updated regularly, and the latest copies of the text in all three languages will be available on The Asia Foundation’swebsite and the TLLEP website.
Geoffrey Swenson is law program manager for The Asia Foundation’s Access Justice Program in Timor-Leste. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.