A district-based audit of maternal and perinatal mortality began during 1994 in three provinces of South Kalimantan, Indonesia. Both medical and non-medical factors were documented and an effort was made to progress from merely assessing substandard care to recommending improvements in access to care and the quality of care. Extensive discussions of cases of maternal death were held during regular meetings with providers, policy-makers and community members. The sources of information included verbal autopsies with family members and medical records. Between 1995 and 1999 the audit reviewed 130 maternal deaths. The leading causes of death were haemorrhage (41%) and hypertensive diseases (32%). Delays in decision-making and poor quality of care in health facilities were seen as contributory factors in 77% and 60% of the deaths, respectively. Economic constraints were believed to have contributed to 37% of the deaths. The distance between a patient's home and a health provider or facility did not appear to have a significant influence, nor did transport problems. The audit led to changes in the quality of obstetric care in the district. Its success was particularly attributable to the process of accountability of both health providers and policy-makers and to improved working relationships between health providers at different levels and between providers and the community. With a view to the continuation and further expansion of the audit it may be necessary to reconsider the role of the provincial team, the need of health providers for confidentiality, the added benefit of facility-based audits, the need to incorporate scientific evidence into the review process, and the possible consideration of severe complications as well as deaths. It may also be necessary to recognize that village midwives are not solely responsible for maternal deaths.