Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Legal awareness improves, but things are not getting better

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While legal reform in the country is still stagnant, legal awareness among people in the city has apparently improved. More residents have the courage to seek legal settlement when they feel that they have been treated unfairly -- by the government.

They join forces to file class actions against the government over what they regard as violations of the law. Last year, there were several class actions handled by district courts here.

Among them was the one filed by becak (pedicab) drivers against Governor Sutiyoso over raids on their becak. In another case, Karang Anyar residents sued Sutiyoso and state railway company PT KAI over what they claimed to be illegal eviction. Sutiyoso, along with President Megawati and the West Java governor, were also sued by flood victims for failure to anticipate the huge floods earlier this year.

The latest class action was filed in the middle of last year at the Jakarta State Administrative Court by 564 families in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta, against Sutiyoso for allowing the construction of a sports stadium in the area. The plaintiffs argued that the land should have been allocated for social and public facilities instead of commercial ones.

Class action lawsuits are indeed new here. They were first introduced in the late 1990s.

The courts have rejected most class actions due to the lack of regulations. Most judges believe that class actions, which are based on English Common or Anglo-Saxon law, were inapplicable here because the law in Indonesia is based on the continental or civil law system, which does not recognize such lawsuits.

Due to a wide misperception and rejection of class actions, even though more people filed such suits, the Supreme Court finally issued in April a regulation requiring district courts and judges to accept the suits.

The Supreme Court said that the regulations allowed a group of people, who had suffered as a result of policy made by the government, other state institutions or private ones, to file a class action.

So far, there are three laws in the country that covers class actions: Environmental Law no. 23/1997, Forestry Law no. 41/1999 and Consumer Protection Law no. 8/1999.  Mas Achmad Santosa, a senior researcher of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL) who was involved in the drafting of class action regulations, said the adjudication of class actions actually provided benefits for the country's legal system.

Class actions, which accommodate legal action from more than three plaintiffs, prevent the repetitive filing of lawsuits by individual plaintiffs with the same grievance. They will save money, time and energy for the courts, plaintiffs and the accused.

This will also encourage the accused, be it government or private companies, to improve their service to the public.  Santosa added that the lawsuit is mandatory for the country, which is still struggling for democracy.  "Class actions could be used by citizens to question the government's public accountability," he argued.

However, Santosa said that the country must still struggle to improve class action procedures as only few judges and legal practitioners had proper knowledge about them.

The Supreme Court has provided courses on class actions for judges across the country. But it will need some time before the judges, who rarely adopt a radical legal approach, to master the knowledge.

On the other hand, lawyers and other legal practitioners must also improve their knowledge about class actions.

So far, about 50 cases have been taken to court but most were turned down by the courts.

Late last year, flood victims lost in their suit against Sutiyoso, the President and the West Java governor, as the Central Jakarta District Court decided that the accused did not have any legal obligation to take preventive measures or to minimize the impact of the flooding that inundated the city earlier this year.

But the legal process is not over as the plaintiffs, whose lawyers include those from the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH), decided to appeal to the high court.

The first verdict ruling in favor of the plaintiffs was made in October in 2001 by the Central Jakarta District Court.

The court ruled in favor of consumers who had sued state oil and gas company Pertamina for arbitrarily raising the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in 2000.

The decision, however, was overturned by the Jakarta High Court. The case is now being handled by the Supreme Court.

The Central Jakarta District Court also ruled last year in favor of 57 becak drivers organized by the Jakarta Becak Association and the Urban Poor Consortium (UPC).

The court decided that the city administration had carried out the raids "improperly" but it rejected the plaintiffs' compensation demand.

But the Jakarta High Court turned down the lower court's decision. And the Supreme Court upheld the high court's decision.

The Central Jakarta District Court also ruled in favor of 40 poor people in Karang Anyar who were evicted by the city administration and state railway company PT KAI.

The court said that the authorities had carried out the eviction unlawfully without proper legal notification beforehand. The court ordered the accused to pay compensation to the plaintiffs.

The Jakarta High Court overturned the verdict.

This time, the plaintiffs, who were accompanied by UPC, accepted the ruling.

In 2001, about 50 becak drivers, street vendors and poor people living along riverbanks sued the city governor and the North Jakarta mayor for what they regarded as illegal eviction.

They appointed eight of them to represent the group in court. They called themselves "ghost lawyers".

As they had no specialist legal knowledge, they were assisted by lawyers from UPC.

The Central Jakarta District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but the high court overturned the decision.

Again, the plaintiffs gave up and decided not to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Financial constraints might have prevented the poor plaintiffs from going further.

It has been a tendency here that the plaintiffs in class actions are represented by pro bono lawyers.

To file a lawsuit at the district court, plaintiffs have to pay around Rp 300,000. When they appeal to the high court, the administration fee is as much as Rp 500,000. To appeal at the Supreme Court, they must pay Rp 1 million.

But Horas Siringo Ringo, a UPC lawyer, said that the people decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court as they were skeptical and devoid of hope. Ringo also complained that the legal process in the high court and also in the Supreme Court lacked transparency.

"Why should we appeal to the Supreme Court? We will eventually lose ...," he said in despair.

Like Ringo and the plaintiffs, many others are also skeptical about the judiciary in the country. The legal process is long and drawn-out, expensive and there is no guarantee that justice will be done.

But in the absence of active public participation, things will not get any better.


Several class action lawsuits

Plaintiff Accused Cases Status

1. LPG consumers in Greater State-owned oil company The consumers sued Pertamina The Central Jakarta District Court

Jakarta Pertamina for allegedly increasing the ruled in favor of the plaintiff in 2001.

price of liquefied petroleum The Jakarta High Court overturned the

gas (LPG) unlawfully in 2000. verdict earlier this year.

The case is being heard at the Supreme Court.

2. Evicted people in City governor, Dwellers under a railway The Central Jakarta District Court ruled

Karanganyar, Central state-owned railway bridge in Karanganyar, in favor of the plaintiff.

Jakarta company PT KAI Central Jakarta sued the The Jakarta High Court overturned the ruling.

accused for allegedly The plaintiff did not appeal.

conducting evictions against

them unlawfully.

3. Poor people in Greater City governor 57 poor plaintiffs The Central Jakarta District Court ruled in

Jakarta representing becak drivers favor of the plaintiffs, saying the officers

and low-income Jakartans failed to notify the plaintiffs prior to the

sued the accused for eviction.

evicting them. The Jakarta High Court overturned the

verdict. The plaintiff did not appeal.

4. Flood victims in the City governor The plaintiffs sued the The Central Jakarta District Court rejected

city West Java governor accused for failure to handle the lawsuit, saying the accused were not

President the disaster that killed more responsible for natural disaster.

than 20 people.

5. Residents of Kelapa City governor The plaintiff sued the The Jakarta State Administrative Court

Gading accused for permitting a is scheduled to hand down the verdict

developer to build a sport on Jan.16.

stadium, equipped with shopping

mall, in the area, which was

supposed to be used for public

and social facilities. Source: The Jakarta Post