Indonesian Legal System

The Indonesian Legal System


It is tempting to imagine “The Law” as something written in a large book, perhaps difficult to find or to read, but somewhere a few wise old men do study and understand it, and therefore society unfolds according to these principles.

It is not really like that anywhere, though it is a reasonable approximation in many countries guided by a legal system consisting of:

  • clearly written laws...
  • enforced by transparently functioning legal institutions including courts, police, and government offices...
  • for a public assisted by well-regulated and ethical law professionals.

Despite the best efforts of many hard-working Indonesian citizens in the Reform era, none of these conditions are true in Indonesia.


What is a “legal system”?

If we use a dictionary definition of “system” as a coordinated or interdependent group of items intended to create a unified whole, then we can’t really say that Indonesia has a legal “system.”

Indonesia has a collection of regulations and institutions from diverse and uncoordinated origins with no over-arching purpose.

Despite occasional minor changes in laws or restructuring of organizations, no major reforms of Indonesian law have taken place since 1945.

With no big book, no wise old men, no vision of the purpose of Indonesian law and institutions, and no consensus about a need for change, there is little prospect of significant improvement any time soon.


Another way to understand Indonesian law is by considering the dictionary definition of “law”

A second meaning of “law” in English is “something that is observed to always be true,” regardless of whether we have a theory or explanation for it, like The Law of Gravity or The Law of Diminishing Returns or The Law of the Jungle.

For most countries, written law and observed law as enforced and experienced law is pretty much the same thing.

But not in Indonesia.

When people discuss law in Indonesia, one person may be talking about what is written in books, someone else is talking about what happens in practice, and someone else again is talking about personal experience which matches neither written law nor usual practice.


Some people find these discussions fascinating, but many people only want a fast to simple questions like “How do we get married?”

We can provide a few quick answers and recommendations, although some may be in conflict with much popular opinion.

If you want to know WHY we say there is no way to guarantee 100% safety to any legal status or process in Indonesia, you will need to read more deeply. We provide detailed summaries and case histories with references to extended sources.

In the following discussions we will often focus on marriage and land laws as examples. But many of the principles and problems with marriage and land laws are also present in many other aspects of Indonesian law.