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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Legal Aid in Cambodia: Practices, Perceptions and Needs


Under the terms of its Legal and Judicial Strategy Action Plan, the Royal Government of Cambodia is committed to improving the quality of legal processes and related services, including high quality legal aid services. This study is a first step in meeting this commitment.

The aim of this study has been to establish the nature and character of legal aid service in Cambodia, and to assess various perceptions of what legal aid is and what it should be. The findings of the study are intended to inform future decisions taken by Government and NGOs about the measures needed to improve legal aid services.

The study has taken into account the regulatory framework for legal aid in Cambodia. This includes elements of the Cambodian Constitution and the 1993 State of Cambodia Criminal Procedure Law, both of which prescribe the provision of legal aid. It also includes the Law on the Bar, which calls upon the Bar Association to provide legal aid services to those who need it.

The study recognizes that apart from private practitioners contracted by the Bar Association to provide limited legal aid services, as well as the few private practitioners who provide services pro bono publico (for the public good, i.e. free of charge), those currently providing legal aid services in Cambodia consist entirely of NGOs.

The survey found that almost one quarter of all licensed lawyers and trainee lawyers are in the full-time employ of legal aid organizations, that is, NGOs specializing in legal aid.

From a client’s perspective

The survey showed that while Cambodian citizens have limited knowledge of legal aid and where to get legal aid services, perceptions of legal aid as a concept and a practice are generally favorable.

Potential users or clients of legal aid services emphasized to survey researchers the need for information about legal aid to be made available, particularly through mass media. Current legal aid providers agreed on the need for information on legal aid to be disseminated, but emphasized the value of training courses at the community level.

Of the major legal issues faced by local communities in the areas surveyed, potential clients identified the following: land disputes, domestic violence and other issues relating to human rights violations, and crime generally.

The survey showed that when they obtain referrals to legal aid services most local people do so through local advisors, mainly commune and village authorities. It showed that they often face serious constraints relating to financing, communications and a knowledge of the law. Financial constraints include not having money to travel to and from legal aid providers’ offices. Communication problems are usually to do with clients being unable to communicate physically with legal aid professionals, either because they do not know where the legal aid professionals are located or because they do not have access to telephones. Limited knowledge of the law and legal processes is often a practical hindrance in the way of legal aid being effectively provided, with legal aid clients destroying essential evidence, approaching


Issues faced by providers

In survey interviews potential clients and providers both said that legal aid providers lack adequate human resources and do not budget sufficient resources for office equipment (particularly IT-related equipment), salaries, and investigation expenses. Legal aid professionals also noted a lack of needed legal resources such as the texts of current laws.

Interview respondents suggested improving legal aid services by promoting greater linkages between clients and local government authorities, and also by improving the formal justice system in terms of capacity, transparency, accountability, fairness and independence.

Key stakeholders made recommendations in four areas: budgets and financing, institutions and infrastructure, human resources, and client awareness. Specifically they proposed:

Budgetary & financing

  • Creation of an informal national network of representatives of Government institutions, BAKC (Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia), NGOs focusing on legal aid, and donor agencies to discuss challenges and ensure cohesion in legal aid interventions.

  • Involvement of business and trade associations, and larger private sector enterprises, in financing specific legal aid initiatives.

  • Government allocation of specific budgets for legal aid and the development of legal aid policies, with budget funds channeled through BAKC or some other central coordinating body.

Institutions and Infrastructure

  • Development of alternative channels, for example commune or village authorities, social workers, police and court personnel, to work with the justice sector to increase the outreach of legal aid services.

  • Dissemination to community and peer networks of knowledge and skills relating to legal aid, so that information about legal aid services is more readily available.

  • Creation of (a) an outreach program with the participation of the private sector, including business associations and larger private sector enterprises; (b) a toll-free central legal aid referral phone line for citizens to ask about legal issues and legal aid services; (c) more legal aid offices with more lawyers at the provincial level; and (d) databases, documentation centers and libraries of important laws.

  • Implementation by BAKC of a standardized recruitment, placement and M&E process, including a means test and fee structure, so that it can hire and place volunteer lawyers as a way of meeting its mandate and ensuring that poor people get legal aid.

  • Development of a Legal Aid Foundation to serve as a conduit for funds and to develop a legal aid infrastructure. Foundation members would include representatives of the justice sector, legal aid NGOs, BAKC, donors and private businesses.

Human resources

  • Training on basic rights and legal aid services for social workers and commune and village authorities in areas where legal aid clients are most in need - land law, domestic violence and criminal matter
  • Training for ‘points of first contact’ such as social workers and commune or village authorities so that they can advise their clients about basic rights and legal aid servicesTraining to improve the skills of legal aid professionals in trial conduct and advocacy, client investigations, and interviewing, especially interviewing trauma victims
  • Removal of the current limit of 50-55 lawyers that can be sworn in by the Bar and enter practice in any one year, so that market-led demands can be met.
      • Creation of arrangements for private practitioners to provide legal aid services in urban areas so that scarce legal aid resources can be focused on rural areas.
      • Development of (a) a cadre of professional legal assistants able to support legal aid lawyers; and (b) a cadre of community paralegals trained and with adequate resources to serve as ‘first aiders’ for legal problems.
      • Inclusion of clinical teaching methodologies in university teaching programs, thus providing some legal aid services to poor people while ensuring that law school graduates are equipped to provide such services.

    Client awareness

      Promotion of a concerted, coordinated effort to promote potential clients’ awareness of legal aid via a range of local and national communication media.

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