Skip to main content
Law and Language in Timor-Leste: Bridging the Divide
Contemporary Southeast Asia (2015)
  • Fernando Dias Simões, Prof.
As in other post-conflict states, the international community has been actively promoting the implementation of the rule of law in Timor-Leste. The justice system remains the weakest branch of Timor-Leste’s governance architecture. The effectiveness of the justice system is hampered by the fact that laws and proceedings are not always translated into languages understood by all court actors. Timor-Leste has a long history of multilingualism, with at least sixteen language varieties being spoken in the country. Both Tetum and Portuguese are official languages, with Portuguese being predominantly used in the courts, even though less than 10 per cent of the population is fluent in the idiom. The post-colonial legacy was one of two separate legal systems — the formal legal system and the traditional system — operating in parallel. More than a decade after independence, the former continues to have only a peripheral presence in the lives of most East Timorese. This gap between the language of the people and the language of the courts heightens the challenges to nation- and state-building in Timor-Leste. The purpose of this article is to examine the current language policy in Timor-Leste and discuss possible avenues for strengthening the formal justice system in a multilingual environment.
  • Timor-Leste,
  • Rule of Law,
  • Multilingualism,
  • Official Languages,
  • Legal Pluralism
Publication Date
Citation Information
Fernando Dias Simões. "Law and Language in Timor-Leste: Bridging the Divide" Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 37 Iss. 3 (2015) p. 381 - 405
Available at: