The Community Legal Education Center, which is representing Ratanakkiri villagers in a legal case against Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister Keat Kolney, is operating in violation of the law on the bar, Cambodian Bar Association officials said Sunday.
On June 19, Keat Kolney filed a complaint with the bar against seven CLEC lawyers and three lawyers from Legal Aid of Cambodia on the grounds that they had incited Jarai ethnic minority villagers involved in a long-running dispute with her over 450 hectares of land.
In a June 19 letter to bar President Ky Tech, Keat Kolney—who is also the wife of Land Management Ministry secretary of state Chhan Saphan—alleged that the lawyers were politically motivated. CLEC and LAC lawyers have denied those charges, and the bar is currently investigating the case.
Bar Association Secretary-General Ly Tayseng, who maintained that he was unaware of Keat Kolney’s complaint, said Sunday that lawyers cannot be employees of an NGO and provide legal services to a third party unless the NGO has signed a special agreement with the Bar Association
He and the bar’s Vice Secretary-General Nou Tharith said that to date, CLEC has failed to sign such an agreement, putting them in violation of the law.
“They don’t respect the law on the bar,” Ly Tayseng said, adding that oversight of legal aid NGOs falls within the bar’s mandate to supervise the legal practice in Cambodia and ensure that all lawyers, whether they work in private practice or pro bono, retain their independence. “So far we haven’t taken any action against [CLEC]. Legally speaking, they need to have an agreement with the bar. Otherwise they are providing legal service in an illegal manner.”
Ly Tayseng also said it was up to the bar’s governing body, the bar council, to decide whether to take any action against the group.
Huon Chundy, CLEC’s program manager, said Sunday that CLEC’s efforts to draft a memorandum of understanding with the bar had been disrupted by controversy over the bar’s 2004 presidential election, which left the bar without clear leadership until 2006.
“We talked about the MOU with the bar association, but failed because of the internal election problem,” he said.
Nou Tharith dismissed Huon Chundy’s argument. “Why didn’t they sign the MOU before or after the election problems?” he said.
Such an agreement, he added, would give the bar significant oversight powers. “When we sign an MOU it means we work together, so we want to know what they are working on,” he said.
Questions over the bar’s jurisdiction have twice stalled work at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, prompting some to claim that the bar was operating as an arm of the government—an allegation that bar and government officials have denied.
In November, the bar association scuttled a training session hosted by the International Bar Association and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the grounds that the course violated Cambodian law, which bar officials said gives the bar exclusive authority to sanction training programs for Cambodian lawyers.
Earlier this year, a debate about the fees the bar wanted to charge foreign lawyers wishing to practice at the court delayed the adoption of crucial procedural rules by a month.
Nou Tharith said that Legal Aid of Cambodia and the Cambodian Defenders Project signed agreements with the bar in the 1990s, which brought them into compliance with the law. But Ly Tayseng said he believed those two groups could also be in violation.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that to the best of his knowledge, CDP was not in violation of the law.
He said CDP had signed an agreement with the bar in 1998 allowing CDP to offer legal services to the poor, which he believed was still in force.
“If [Ly Tayseng] thinks anyone violates the law, it is better for him to file a complaint to the bar,” he said.
Peung Yok Hiep, director of Legal Aid of Cambodia, said she believed LAC was also in compliance with the law. She said LAC signed annual agreements with the bar in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
Since then, she said, LAC has been headed by a lawyer, a shift that she believes renders further agreements unnecessary.
“We don’t have to sign any MOU with the bar association because we work independently, unless there is another discussion with the bar association,” she said.
Ly Tayseng said that far from discouraging lawyers from doing legal aid work, the bar council has decided to ramp up its efforts to serve the poor by opening legal aid offices in all of Cambodia’s provinces.
Ly Tayseng said the initial expansion would be covered by the bar’s existing legal aid budget, some $50,000 a year from the government. But, he added: “We will be looking for new funding.”