The Jakarta Post
With the poor often victimized by the graft-mired judicial system, the government decided to disburse Rp 40.8 billion (US$3.9 million) to legal aid institutes.
The government has verified 310 legal aid organizations that will receive the funds. They signed a contract with the government during a national meeting on legal aid and access to justice in Jakarta that was opened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Friday.
The three-day meeting will brief the organizations to officially kick-start the program.
The government and the House of Representatives enacted the Legal Aid Law in 2011, but the nation's judicial system is still marred by what many believe to be miscarriages of justice against petty criminals who are mostly poor and cannot defend themselves.
In 2011, a mentally challenged man in Cilacap, Central Java, was convicted for stealing bananas, sparking public outrage. Last year, a 15-year-old boy in Palu, Central Sulawesi, was tried and found guilty of stealing a pair of sandals that belonged to a policeman, even though he was not sent to jail.
Previously, legal aid agencies relied on donations from the public or local administrations for their operations due to a lack of clear regulation to support them. Many of them are facing financial hardship, including the Jakarta Legal Aid
In his opening speech, Yudhoyono said he welcomed the program, telling the participants and the ministry to work together to ensure access to justice for poor people.
He also said that he hoped the meeting could come up with the best design of the free legal aid procedure.
'We have to admit, all this time, legal aid has yet to reach poor people ['¦] They have limited access to justice. This is not merely the mistake of the law enforcers, but all of us,' he said. 'Not all highly-educated people understand legal terms and procedures, let alone those poor people with low education.'
'Therefore, we all must fight for it. It's time for us to give full attention for the poor.'
Deputy Law and Human Rights Minister Denny Indrayana said his office would ensure an easier process in getting legal help for the poor. 'They can show either poor status identification cards or any other proofs of poor condition, including proof that they received rice for poor people [raskin] or temporary direct cash assistance [BLSM] as not all of them have the cards,' he said. 'The legal aid institutions will later verify it as fast as possible.'
Wicipto Setiadi, Head of the National Law Development Agency (BPHN) at the Ministry, however, admitted the program would face challenges, particularly due to uneven distribution of legal aid institutions across the country.
Riau Island province, West Sulawesi province and North Sulawesi have only one legal aid office each. 'The only legal aid institute in Riau Island province will of course face difficulties given the size of the province,' he said.
Legal aid agencies must also able to net the poor who are dealing with petty legal cases, he added.
Furthermore, not all police investigators and prosecutors know how to handle petty crimes.
Many of the petty theft suspects were often charged with articles in the Criminal Code that could carry a maximum jail term of five years.
The Supreme Court actually issued in early last year a regulation to update the definition of a petty crime for the first time since 1960 to prevent such cases. Under the new regulation, thefts, fraud and vandalism would be deemed petty crimes if they caused a maximum of Rp 2.5 million in losses in goods or money. The previous limit was set at Rp 250.
With the new regulation, suspects or defendants in petty crime cases are 'not liable to detention' and face only a maximum three-month jail sentence, while the case cannot be brought to the appellate court.
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