Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why I am not a Fan of Customary Law

A couple of days ago, I came upon very troubling news about the current draft of our new criminal code that is supposed to replace the one made during the Dutch colonial era. Apparently, the drafters of the new code inserted a provision saying something like this: the Criminal Code will not limit the possibility of applying the laws that stipulate that someone must be penalized even though the penal actions are not regulated in Indonesian regulations.

Even worse, it seems that the senior law professors involved in the process are not strongly opposed to this provision, with some evening showing their support, saying that customary law should be respected in Indonesia. This is preposterous. Under classical legal doctrine, a person can only be penalized if his or her action violates the written provisions of a validly promulgated law, the so called legality principle.

I assume that most of the time, defenders of the use of customary law in the Indonesian legal system believe that customary law represents the indigenous wisdom of the relevant society. The fact that the customary law has existed for a long time means that the practice is good for everyone. This is completely misleading.

There are many explanations given for why certain customs prevail for such a long time. First, the customs are efficient for everyone within the society. Second, the customs are efficient only for the majority of the society. The second type of customs will be our main focus because it is possible that such customs are effective for the majority without putting any burden on the minority, but it is also possible that the customs only benefit the majority at the expense of the minority.

We have a lot of examples for these kinds of customs, especially customs that support discrimination based on race, gender, and religion. It can also be in the form of non-welfare maximizing customs where people cannot avoid such customs because costs of avoidance would be too expensive (imagine the custom of Indonesian people to hold a marriage party). In other words, the persistent existence of such custom does not necessarily indicate that the custom is good for the welfare of the society.

Having said that, putting a provision that people can be penalized for actions that are not legislated in state laws would be a ridiculous idea. First, the standards are not clear (and the diversity of tribes in Indonesia will complicate the standards even more). Second, there is no guarantee that policing transgressions of customary law is justified other than to satisfy the interests of certain groups in the society.

Why do we have criminal law? From a Law and Economics perspective, criminal law exists to deter actions that will cost society. Certain acts must be prevented and we should give incentives to people to avoid such actions because we believe that the existence of those actions will result in a net public loss.

Furthermore, criminal law will only be effective if there is a strong enforcement basis. That would be another cost for society. After all, legal enforcement is not free of charge. That is why some legal scholars argue that the optimum rate of crime might not be zero, because the costs for achieving such a rate might actually outweigh the benefits.

Thus, in order to reach a balance, we should be careful in formulating criminal law provisions. We should only criminalize actions that are clearly harmful to society and where the costs of the enforcement would justify having such criminal provisions. This means that the legal provisions must be clear, people should know what the prohibited actions are and why the actions should be prohibited.

You can’t achieve this goal if you can criminalize other people by using provisions that might be unknown to the public or don’t have legitimate reasons for existing in the first place. If these lawmakers really understand the efficiency principle, their way of thinking should be reversed. Customary law should only be used to exempt a person from being penalized under the provisions of the criminal code provided if the end results will produce net benefits to society.

By this I mean that if the customary law can solve the criminal issues using cheaper measures without having to use the standard state legal enforcement process (which is costly), we should go with the customary law (a good example would be the concept of restorative justice).

I can only hope that the final version of our new criminal code will no longer include the above provision.

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