On one side, critics of the Council of Jurists, the body charged with reviewing draft laws before they go to the Council of Ministers, complain that it involves itself in politics, takes too long to go through laws and is dominated by one powerful government lawyer. On the other side, members of the Council say they cannot do their jobs because they have no money, a shortage of legal experts and a lack of competent supporting staff.
But one thing both sides do agree on is that the Council does not work the way it’s supposed to, and that ultimately hurts the country because the body’s job is one of the most important in the lawmaking process in Cambodia.
“The Ministry of Commerce or the Ministry of Interior works half a year on a law that is needed, then the Council of Jurists holds it,” said Peter Koppinger, country representative of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German NGO that promotes democracy. “It’s an unsatisfying procedure.”
The Council was created by subdecree in 1994, when the country had just started rebuilding after years of war, and it was thought that Cambodia needed such a body to examine the quality of laws. The body acts as the gateway for those who want their draft laws to be passed on to the next level, the Council of Ministers.
The Council of Jurists’ job, according to the subdecree, is to make sure a draft law doesn’t contradict other laws on the books, ensure the language is understandable and that the law is written in a legally sound way.
In 1999, the Council went through about 1,000 pages of draft laws, subdecrees and other government directives.
Besides examining laws, the council also has to prepare the text for the prime minister, the National Assembly and King Norodom Sihanouk.
The Council can provide legal opinions and make suggested amendments.
But critics say the Council is doing too much, analyzing laws not only for technical problems, but for policy as well. They say the Council gets its hands into the content of a law, which should be left up to the Council of Ministers when it debates a draft law.
“The Council looks into the substance of laws when the members don’t know about all these different areas of government,” one legal expert said. “Many people are very upset with the Council.”
Some also criticize Heng Vong Bunchat, vice chairman of the Council of Jurists, for having too much control over the body. Although Sok An, minister of the Council of Ministers, is listed as the chairman of the Council of Jurists, many say he is just a figurehead and Heng Vong Bunchat is the real boss.
“If he likes you, your life is easy. But if he doesn’t like you, your life is hell,” said one lawyer who deals with the Council and for that reason did not want to be named. “Everyone feels terrorized and nobody wants to challenge him.”
He said he has to “go through enormous energy and rejustify my position. But you have to be nice to them or they will blacklist you….It’s like pulling teeth and I find it very annoying. When we send them a law, we worry about when we will see it again.”
Even if reviewing the content of laws was within the Council’s mandate, legal experts say, the members do not have the expertise to deal with policy ranging from tax to criminal issues.
Current proposals stalled at the Council include a law that outlines how an immigrant can become a Cambodian citizen and a subdecree on the establishment of a school to give law students practical training after they graduate from law school, put together by the Bar Association of Cambodia.
Heng Vong Bunchat dismissed the criticisms of himself and the Council, saying “people don’t understand the real problem.” He said the main obstacle for the Council is the lack of funding for the body.
“What is there to control?” Heng Vong Bunchat asked. “There is no Council. The Council does nothing now. We have no workers. We don’t have a budget so we can’t do anything.”
Because the Council is unable to do work, Heng Vong Bunchat says he acts mostly as a legal adviser to the government, mainly to the Council of Ministers.
“The Council of Jurists needs some support, but nobody understands this,” he said. “I don’t like asking for money, so we work with our possibilities. Everybody has forgotten about us. We need to have good jurists. But if you want to have good members, you have to have a good budget.”
Leng Peng Long, a former adviser to the Council and I now a member, also said the Council is hindered by a lack of qualified employees, a shortage of money and too much work. However, he did not go as far as his boss in describing the Council’s problems.
“Some staff don’t come in because we don’t have enough money to pay them,” he said. “I miss qualified staff to help me.”
There are just a few Council members who show up to work, Leng Peng Long said.
Leng Peng Long, however, denied that the Council looks at content or policy. He also said it takes on average a few months to get a law through the Council, and denied that the body delays the lawmaking process.
But even he admitted that the Council’s job is made more difficult because of the wide range of topics covered in the laws submitted to the body.
“Our office has to answer questions from the National Assembly and others,” Leng Peng Long said. “It’s not easy at all because they ask about every field. It’s hard to answer everything. That’s the reason we are so busy.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the Council is charged with doing very important work “so the government should take care of them and make sure they do their work.”
A former member of the Council said the body initially had a valuable purpose, but now that it has strayed from its outlined duties, it no longer serves the country.
“The Council is useless now,” said the former member who was on the Council from 1994-97. “The Council is involved in politics and that’s the problem. They should not do that.”
Koppinger said the best solution would be to increase the expertise of people making laws in the ministries and to have other departments in the Council of Ministers with specialists in different policy areas also involved.
That would free up the members of the Council of Jurists to focus solely on the technical aspects, which is its job in the first place, Koppinger said.
“Even if the people on the Council are honest and good, they can’t meet the expectations,” Koppinger said. “No one is good enough that they know about all the topics that the Council deals with.”