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Courting Reform: Indonesia's Islamic Courts and Justice for the Poor

6 December 2010   |   Lowy Institute Papers   |   By Cate Sumner and Tim Lindsey

In this Lowy Institute Paper, Cate Sumner and Tim Lindsey explore how the Islamic courts in Indonesia have embraced reform within a judicial system notorious for corruption and incompetence, taking the lead in efforts to deliver decisions that are more accessible, transparent and fair - especially for women and the poor.

'Mainstream Islamic institutions have played an important part in the post-Soeharto process of democratisation and institutional reform, among them Indonesia’s Islamic courts.'

Indonesia
Flickr/Ahron de Leeuw
Indonesia
Key Findings
Indonesia's Religious Court system is regarded by many Indonesians as one of the few exceptions to the institutionalised dysfunction of much of the rest of the judicial system.
The Religious Courts play a crucial role in Indonesia’s development and poverty alleviation programs, particularly for female heads of household.
Islamic institutions are potential development partners for donors and Indonesian NGOs, because of their ability to influence broader reform processes.

Full Text

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    Western perceptions of Islam in Indonesia are often dominated by images of radical minorities seeking a shari’ah state. In reality, however, mainstream Islamic institutions have played an important part in the post-Soeharto process of democratisation and institutional reform. Among them are Indonesia’s Islamic courts, the Pengadilan Agama or Religious Courts.

    This paper describes how Indonesia’s family courts for Muslims — long among the most liberal in the Muslim world — have embraced reform within a judicial system notorious for corruption and incompetence, taking the lead in efforts to deliver decisions that are more accessible, transparent and fair for women and the poor. These courts may still have a way to go to reach standards of judicial service achieved in certain developed countries, but they are nonetheless an example of how state Islamic institutions can contribute to Indonesia’s broader reform agenda by focusing on the needs of poor and marginalised groups.

    Access to the Religious Courts for the poor has increased tenfold over the last two years through the Religious Courts’ waiving court fees for the poor. Most of these prodeo cases involve women as applicants before the Religious Courts. This is important because these family law cases help female heads of household document their role. This, in turn, facilitates access to the Indonesian government’s social welfare programs, thus helping to break entrenched cycles of poverty in women-headed households.

    Australian institutions have been involved in supporting the Religious Courts in developing their access and equity reforms. Indonesia's new five-year development blueprint now seeks to extend access to justice reforms trialed in the Religious Courts to other court jurisdictions in Indonesia. The next five years could see significant change to access to justice in Indonesia’s courts. If so, it will have been led by Indonesia’s Religious Courts and supported by the Australian government and, in particular, the Family Court of Australia, a reminder to donors of the potential value of Islamic institutions as partners in development assistance interventions.