Bar Association Tells NGO Not To Employ Lawyers on Staff

The Cambodian Bar Association has informed legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project that it is against the law on the bar for them to employ lawyers on staff, according to a letter obtained Wednesday.

The bar association wrote the letter in response to a job posting by the CDP, which is seeking to hire additional lawyers.

In the letter, dated June 22, the bar told CDP that it can work with lawyers if it stops referring to them as “staff” and stops using the words “working for.” The bar claimed that by working for NGOs, lawyers are compromising their independence.

“[L]awyers cannot be on the staff of NGOs, institutions or groups at all, as stated in article one of the law on the bar, which says that the legal profession is ‘an independent and autonomous profession involved in serving justice,’” the bar letter stated.

Members of the legal aid community have worried for some time that the bar association might act to extend its influence over legal aid NGOs, but bar officials insist they are only doing their part to ensure the independence of lawyers.

Bar Vice-Secretary General Nou Thirith said Thursday that lawyers can work for NGOs—and the government—as long as they are not staff employees.

“They can’t compromise themselves by being staffers of NGOs. They lose their independence,” Nou Thirith said, adding that there is nothing wrong with lawyers providing legal services to and maintaining offices at NGOs.

CDP Director Sok Sam Oeun said Wednesday that he changed the language in the job posting and proceeded to hire five lawyers. He’s looking for four more.

Sok Sam Oeun said he disagrees with the bar’s interpretation of the law.

“I want to amend the law on the bar so that lawyers can have freedom,” he said, adding: “The law only says that lawyers are [of] an independent profession.”

“The president of the bar interprets it that you can’t get a salary. The law doesn’t say this. It’s be­cause of an individual’s interpretation,” Sok Sam Oeun said.

The same issue, he said, arose in 1998, when 27 CDP lawyers filed a complaint against the bar, then headed by Say Bory, in the Appeals Court, after the bar had made the same claims.

The CDP lawyers argued that working for an NGO did not mean they were compromising their in­dependence, and the case was ultimately settled out of court, Sok Sam Oeun said.

The CDP currently employs 26 lawyers, though Sok Sam Oeun said he’s happy to call them “personnel” instead of “staff.”

“Okay, we can use another word,” he said.

“I do not employ them. They work with me. I do not give them a salary. I give them money,” he added.

Legal Aid of Cambodia, the Community Legal Education Cen­ter, and Licadho all employ lawyers, but officials from those NGOs said this week that they had not received comparable letters from the bar.

In a statement Thursday, LAC Director Peung Yok Hiep, Licadho President Kek Galabru, and CLEC Executive Director Yeng Virak wrote that the ethical and legal principles that govern Cambodian lawyers do not preclude them from working for NGOs.

Both national law and international norms emphasize that lawyers “have the right to practice their profession with dignity and an independent mind,” the statement read.

“This has nothing to do with for whom or in what institution the lawyer be employed….[W]e firmly believe lawyers can work for whomever they please,” the statement continued.

Pal Chan Dara, a lawyer for the Apsara Authority, the government body that manages the Angkor park, agreed.

Pal Chan Dara said he sees no problem with lawyers working for NGOs or the government and he said that he works exclusively on government cases and cannot take on private clients.

But, he added: “I don’t get a salary. I get an allowance.”



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