Getting the justice system to work better is one of Indonesia’s most important tasks particularly for the poor. Poor people in Indonesia have long been let down by their justice system. The failures of the system contribute to poverty and insecurity and, with the weakening of the local military and other repressive controls of the New Order, have contributed to rising levels of conflict and vigilantism.
Most studies of the justice system focus on formal legal institutions: the police, prosecutors and courts. Reform proposals follow suit. Yet justice is not simply the realm of the state and its formal legal organs. People speak of a ‘just’ outcome when referring to resolving disputes not only through the courts but also through mediation and negotiation. Comprehensive strategies for improving poor people’s access to justice should thus encompass both formal and informal dispute resolution, starting with people’s experiences and not just the legal system.
In Indonesia, though, both informal and formal justice institutions have served the poor badly. In an environment where people’s existing institutions have tended to fail them, what kinds of reform strategies are likely to succeed? This paper starts by seeking to understand how poor people in Indonesian villages resolve disputes and what kinds of factors in particular enable them to succeed. It analyzes eighteen cases in which Indonesian village communities have sought access to justice, tracks how these attempts have unfolded and examines the considerations that guided people’s choices at each stage. In doing so, it aims to
(i) understand the preferences and expectations of villagers in resolving disputes and defending their interests;
(ii) identify patterns in the interaction between poor communities, village institutions and the legal system; and
(iii) identify what factors enabled poor village communities to defend their interests successfully in an environment of institutional weakness.
The paper is based on eighteen ethnographic case studies from fourteen different locations in nine provinces in Indonesia. Most of the cases studied were of corruption in village development projects. The researchers used these cases as entry points for wider research on dispute-resolution. Over a thirteen-month period, the research team conducted interviews with over five hundred people, ranging from ordinary villagers to academics, NGOs, community and religious leaders, project consultants, lawyers, political leaders, government officials and police, prosecutors and judges.