Indonesian lawyers in crisis: The ugly truth in times of corona

There is a longstanding crisis of ethics among litigating lawyers in Indonesia, and the corona crisis is revealing their true colours.

Numerous bar associations exist in Indonesia and the reasons behind their merging and separation have a long history and change over time. To put it cynically, it is a degradation of what used to be a separation caused by struggles against authoritarian regimes, to one caused by struggles for power and money.

Being chairman of a bar association in Indonesia nowadays means having the power (though indirect) to register or expel a lawyer from the association, making him or her unable to practise law. As multiple associations now exist in Indonesia, this also means that if a lawyer here is expelled by one association, they can just re-register with another association. Furthermore, bar associations aim to be “the big gun” so they can profit from the large income earned from registration fees paid by aspiring lawyers to take bar exams.

Nevertheless, many observers and Indonesian lawyers themselves are aware of the need to have an authoritative bar association, especially in order to be independent of the government if needed. This is one of the reasons why Indonesia enacted its first Law on Lawyers in 2003. This Law also included the establishment of a task force to unify the multiple bar associations. To cut a long story short, a bar association called PERADI was established, but not long after another split occurred which led to a new association being established as a breakaway from PERADI, called KAI. Nowadays, even PERADI has been split into three different associations with three different chairmen.

PERADI in times of Corona

This blog is about a more recent degradation, which coincidentally occurred while Indonesia was trying to figure out its policies in limiting the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19. In the last week of February, the three different PERADI associations signed a declaration that they “intend to be unified” after an invitation from both the Minister of Law and Human Rights and the Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Security. The latter Minister stated that the unification was needed “to have a good partner in order to better resolve the legal problems in the country” . Note, however, that there was no mention of KAI.

This intent to unify was to be signed at a National Deliberation meeting, where all members of PERADI would elect a new chairperson. However, days after signing the declaration, one of the three PERADI associations held its National Deliberation meeting, attended by the Minister of Law and Human Rights, and elected its chairperson. Another PERADI association scheduled its National Deliberation meeting for 31 March, also to elect its own chairperson. That was when the corona crisis was quickly approaching Indonesia.

In a PERADI Facebook group, many members started asking for the upcoming National Deliberation meeting to be postponed. Many others then accused these members of being scared, therefore not possessing the necessary qualities to be a lawyer. Lawyers must be brave, they said. This National Deliberation meeting was to be attended by around 5000 people at a hotel ballroom in Surabaya. This remained the topic of conversation for almost two weeks. If a lawyer urged for a postponement for health reasons, they were called a coward. The committee then issued a statement that they would provide hand sanitizers and check the body temperature of attendees at the entrance. This was followed by even more lawyers calling each other cowards. The dispute finally ended only days before the scheduled meeting, when the current chairman announced the postponement.

Being a lawyer: A business or a profession?

Lawyers around the world are caught between the two; lawyering as a business and as a profession sometimes have conflicting priorities. As a business, a lawyer has to remain profitable, but from a professional point of view they sometimes have to place their ethical obligation to uphold the rule of law above profit and opt not to ‘win at all costs’. Discussions about this dilemma date back to 1916 in the United States, and are still ongoing among legal scholars and society in general.

Indonesia has been slow in implementing a lockdown policy in response to the spread of the new coronavirus out of fear that the poorer population will lose income, risking hunger and social unrest. But today, one of Indonesia’s most famous litigators who is also active in one of the PERADI associations posted a photo on his Instagram account, showing him relaxing with his frequently-featured Lamborghini in the background, telling those who access his account to hire him for bankruptcy cases.

It seems that in Indonesia, the crisis of ethics among lawyers is even more visible in these times of corona.


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